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ISSUE 01

The And: An Expanded Questionnaire on the Contemporary
In this Issue

An Expanded Questionnaire on the Contemporary

Sohyun Ahn, Michelle Antoinette, Rasheed Araeen, Nikita Yingqian Cai, Kurt Chan, David Clarke, John Clark, David Elliott, Patrick Flores, Judy Freya Sibayan, Gao Shiming, Tapati Guha Thakurta, Atreyee Gupta, Salima Hashmi, Hu Fang, Mella Jaarsma, Joan Kee, Naiza Khan, Heejin Kim, Hyunjin Kim, Martina Köppel-Yang, Lee Weng Choy, Youngchul Lee, Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, Iola Lenzi, Jeff Leung, Carol Lu, Parul Dave Mukherji, Hammad Nasar, Elaine Ng, Manuel Ocampo, Vidya Shivadas, Gayatri Sinha, Karen Smith, Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Akira Tatehata, Nora Taylor, David Teh, Reiko Tomii, Caroline Turner, Frank Vigneron, June Yap, Yeung Yang

The questionnaire:

"Dear

Asia Art Archive is a non-profit organisation dedicated to documenting the recent history of contemporary art in Asia. The original parameters guiding the growth of AAA’s collection, formed in 2000, were loosely constructed with the aim to collate material documenting contemporary art in Asia from as broad a perspective as possible.

As we pass into the organisation’s second decade, we have the opportunity to better define our aims and in doing so to inform new thinking in the field. In 2009, Hal Foster sent a “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” to friends and colleagues in Europe and North America questioning the state of ‘the contemporary.’ Acknowledging Foster, AAA wishes to respond to and enrich the “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” with perspectives in and of Asia. With the launch of a digital collection of material on our website, and a new AAA Journal, we take this opportunity to open up the discussion and engage the expertise of our friends and colleagues in addressing the shifting parameters of our organisation.

Please read the following questions only as triggers for a more elaborate short essay:

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Thank you very much in advance.

Kind regards,
The editorial team
"

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Mon 10/19/2011 3:31 PM
Rasheed Araeen, Editor of Third Text

Art Institutions, Visual Culture and Territoriality and their Roles in Defining and Legitimizing the Contemporary

The art institution plays a fundamental role in defining what is contemporary art, but it is done in tandem or collaboration with the demands of the art market. This role of the institution, such as Tate in Britain, is such that it is often hidden behind the myth of institutional independence; but it can also be overtly visible such as in the case of Turner Prize. In fact, Turner Prize, which is tied to one’s success at the market place – the criteria for nomination is the number of exhibitions one had in the previous year or years – is the main source of the global success of contemporary British art.

In fact the artist must follow, particularly in most of the West, the path prescribed institutionally if he/she wishes be successful professionally. The career seeking artist must go through the prescribed art school education and obtain the necessary qualification before he/she is considered eligible for entry into the art market and then into museum exhibitions and collections. The ambitious artist is fully aware of this trajectory, right from the beginning of his/her journey, and that there is no escape from this predetermination, which thus makes the individual practice part of institutional practice.

The totality of visual culture also predetermines what is recognized as art practice, and contemporary art is no exception. In fact, visual culture can be a resource for art. The richness of visual culture not only can act as an aspiration for art, but can also enable it to appropriate its forms. But with globalization and the global expansion of the art market, and its demands for exotic goods in the name of cultural diversity, this appropriation has now become regional, particularly in Asia. The contemporary Chinese artist must display his/her Chinese origin, the work of the Indian artist must show its Indian roots, and so on, in order for the work to be recognized institutionally and by the art market. In fact, the success of artists from Asia today is very much dependent on their Asian identities which must be visible in their work.

However, there is no so such thing as the discipline of visual culture. If by visual culture is meant culture as a whole, produced by the collectivity of society, its creativity is free from what is understood by the ‘discipline’. Recently there has been a tendency on the part of some historians to introduce the totality of visual culture as a replacement for the discipline of art history, with detrimental consequences for the understanding of art as a historically determined knowledge.  By abandoning the discipline of art history, art has now been turned into any cultural commodity which can merely be sold and brought at the market place.

This change has particularly affected contemporary art practice. Its detachment from the history of ideas, not only from one’s own regional history but what is universal, has turned art into what cannot respond to these ideas critically in a pursuit to take these ideas further in the advancement of humanity to create a better world. On the other hand, if the contemporary was a continuation of ideas within the trajectory of human history it could offer us a critical tool by which it would look at the past, and in doing so would separate the positive from the negative, the success from the failure, and make the ideas move further in such a way that they would enhance the human imagination necessary for the innovation or creation of something new not only for itself but for the good of humanity at large.     

However, there is a specific problem in Asia in this respect. Asia has been at the forefront particularly of postwar mainstream modernism or the avant-garde and its original contribution is tremendous. But the recognized histories of art in Asia do not fully recognize this contribution. This is largely due to the deliberate ignorance of one nation about the achievements of another. Consequently, the tropes of the contemporary are either trapped in nationalist discourses, which ignore the historical achievements of Asia as a whole, or they follow the path determined by histories written by/in the West.    

Globalization has played the major role in this respect; it has created an illusion of trans-territoriality, a space within which all cultures can meet and interact. But the globalization of art emerged with the globalization of capital and its art market, institutionally operated and controlled by the West, particularly by its notion of difference that is now fundamental in maintaining human creativity within the boundaries of nation states, particularly in Asia.    

Also, when art becomes trapped within a nation state it tends to turn to folk and traditional practices, raising a question whose problematic complexity cannot be dealt with by dismissing the role of one’s own cultural tradition in art. As a matter of fact, traditions—folk or other—are important as they connect the contemporary with the past and provide it material for continuity. But in the prevailing system of contemporary art practice based on the privileged individualism, this material is appropriated, exploited and changed to something else entirely for the benefit of the alienated subject or individual, so that the traditions remain static repeating themselves without a forward movement within themselves. Moreover, if an artist’s contemporary practice is entirely dependent on tradition, claiming the authenticity of its continuity removed from the dynamic of the present, it is a dead body for the vultures of the culture industry. 

Folk traditions of course represent the inheritance of the bygone days of the collectivity of the masses, a creativity that was organically integrated with collective productivity. But within the prevailing system, or the bourgeois capitalist society, rural masses are disempowered in being deprived of creative productivity, which is as fundamental to what they create as folk art, and are thus subjected to producing only what is in the interest and pleasure of privileged urban inhabitants. The world today faces the destruction of all life, as the system continues to exploit and pollute the mother earth with all her natural resources and rural inhabitants, without recognition for the solution to the problems of climate change that lies in the return to what was the integrated collective productivity and creativity of the rural masses.             

The art industry within Asia now is the byproduct of and part of globalization; and it cannot therefore function outside this development. Though it has produced tremendous innovative energy and creativity, its evaluation and legitimization remains dependent on the metropolitan centers of the West. The rise of institutions in Asia is not really considerable with the exception of what’s happening in the Gulf region, but it is also connected to the institutions in the West, particularly to the power of its museums. The global expansion of the Guggenheim Museum of New York, particularly its ambition in Asia, is worth mentioning here.

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Tue 10/25/2011 7:13 PM
John Clark, Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

‘Contemporary art’ is an institutional definition of art prescribed by the nature and interests of the prescribing institutions and their agents. Individual practice is in its thrall so long as it wishes to recognized by that definition. There are also immanent costs if it is not so recognized.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

There is no such thing as the ‘discipline of contemporary art’ or the ‘discipline of visual culture’, unless these are hegemonic entities imposing their procedures on the materials of ‘contemporary art’ or ‘visual culture’. Disciplinary knowledge can produce hermeneutic procedures for defining or thereby elucidating ‘contemporary art’ and ‘visual culture’, and this knowledge can be broadly conceived as including art history and art criticism and their methods, old and new, or narrowly as excluding either or both. How free, how generative of new or just deeper  interpretation is the exchange between them to be?

Are we trapped in the trope of ‘the contemporary’?

The ‘contemporary’ seems like another set of Euramerican tools for interpreting the world in a Euramerican way. Does contemporary Asian art not have its own sets of self-definitions, and does the use of Euramerican tools carry with it certain hermeneutic costs?

Are temporality and historicity prescribed by territoriality?

Since we can equally ask ‘Is territoriality prescribed by temporality and historicity?’ we would have to investigate the relative utility of this tautology.

Do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices, and if so how?

Since the ‘traditional’ is the reciprocal pair of the ‘modern’, the folk being a kind of historical sub-variation within the traditional, surely the real question is how is the contemporary to emerge from the modern, and with what benefit to both?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art which is an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Of course institutions and ‘art industry’ can damage politically engaged art, whether individual or from organizations, because the former are the critical subject of the latter or at least involved in its critical positions.

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Wed 12/21/2011 8:50 AM
Nora Taylor, Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism of School of the Art Institute of Chicago


When I started my PhD studies at Cornell University in Southeast Asian Art in 1989, art history was in a crisis. Southeast Asian art itself was seen as an old colonial relic, an off spring of archaeology at best, and at worst a sub-field of South Asian Art History. I had chosen to study Vietnam and Cambodia, intuitively probably, precisely because I wanted to take a critical look at the “margins” of art history. At that time, unlike anthropology that had undergone a period of self-reflectivity in light of world socio-political changes after the end of the Cold War, art history did not seem to be able to move beyond the Euro-American historical classificatory paradigm of tracing the evolution of art from the Classical era to the Present. Even with the advent and popularity of post-colonial studies in academia and the era of multi-culturalism in the 1990s, art history seemed to remain frozen in time and utterly incapable of critical revisionism. This led to the search for alternatives to art history such as visual studies, visual critical studies and the anthropology of art.

These interdisciplinary fields filled a gap in offering new ways of looking at art. The problem was that these fields could not accommodate nor anticipate the changes that took place in the practice and subsequent reception of art from around the world. Whether thanks to the rise of a global economy, greater global communication networks, socio-political détentes, the proliferation of international biennales and markets or a combination of these, at the turn of the 21st century art worlds saw a rise in the presence of artists from around the globe in Europe and America that forever changed the course of art history. Why art history? While art criticism, curatorial practices and the art market also benefitted from the contributions of these artists, I would argue that the field of art history was better equipped to account for them critically primarily because it forced art history to undergo a serious self-reflection, the first since the 1960s and the advent of feminism and psychoanalytic theory. I would add that Visual Studies failed because it could not take a historical look at itself.

This self-critical introspection has enabled art history to move beyond the Western modernist paradigm and finally account for artists from outside of the Western hemisphere. Furthermore, one could argue that a greater synergy between museums, artists and academia has taken place since the 1990s as museums have also undergone critical assessment of their role in the art world and listened to artists and curators who have critiqued their conservative approaches to art. The concept of relational aesthetics, new media and participatory art practices have also helped to create new platforms that engage artists, critics and historians in issues that are not focused solely on the “visual.” By that, I mean ideas pertaining to identity, language, nation, and art as a cerebral, non-visual practice. Perhaps this accounts for the death of visual studies for it appeared reductive, focusing solely on theories of the image and pictures with no consideration for time. Visual anthropology has also failed to create a critical arena for art production because it over burdens art with ethno-cultural baggage.

In my own practice as an art historian, I have found that this “return” to history has been extremely beneficial to our understanding of Southeast Asian art and helped to generate greater dialogues across fields in one important aspect: the critique of modernism. Thanks to the work of scholars from Asia such pioneers as Geeta Kapur, John Clark and Apinan Poshyananda, Asian art history was forced to take a critical stance on Asian Art’s position in the field of modern art history and refute the concept of a universal modernism. Instead, they proposed to locate modernity in Asia within a framework of local history. Their critique of Western hegemonic notions of the “modern” have placed art history at the forefront of an intra-disciplinary debate.

Geography has played an increasingly important role in how artists define their selves and their work. That is, artists tend to locate their practice in nations, cities and regions. They tend to engage in dialogue with where they are from, where they are situated in the present, where they are going, where they work and where they exhibit. The elements of time and place have become key factors for curatorial practices in the West as well. Critics of the hegemony of Western modernism see the proliferation of “centers” within the “periphery.” Much of this debate, however, pertains to Western art history or, should I say, has impacted Western art history, and has little effect within Asia. That is, critical theory does not matter much to artists, for example, from Vietnam where the primary challenge to creativity is State control. This is not the case in a place like Singapore where museums have been collecting art of the region without a specifically nationalist agenda. That said, Singapore is also the only country in Southeast Asia that has built museums that showcase art from outside of its borders. Most countries in Southeast Asia are also too poor to collect art and artists from places such as Vietnam and Cambodia have had to rely on the international market to sell their work. That relationship of outside to inside and inside to outside is also what generates critical thinking about diversity and geo-politics.

The issues of the nation State versus individuals, global economy and socio-political issues have now become the purview of art historical writing about the region simply because many artists exhibit these problems in their work. Academics also become interested in grassroot art movements, independent art spaces and non-governmental, non-commercial institutions.  Southeast Asian art has been theorized from a variety of disciplines from archaeology to ethnography, but I would argue that the field of art history is the only discipline to take artists’ works seriously as “art” rather than the products of a visual culture.

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Fri 12/30/2011 4:02 PM
Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Artist and curator based in Ho Chi Minh City


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

I think this largely impacted by the state of the institutions in different communities. There are areas, for example, in Southeast Asia where institutional influence is very weak – lack of museums, proper curricula in higher education, government cultural organs, etc. In these particular cases, individuals largely operate outside of national institutions, and in some cases, form relationships with institutions of neighboring countries that have more developed institutional support, such as Singapore. 
 
The individual practice for most the artists I work with rely on the institution in one way or another, even in positions such as “institutional critique”. Many of the research methods in fact borrow from their education within or in orbit around institutional practices and for many, involved engagement with an institution is seen as a validation of success to some degree.
 
Recently, I was involved in an exhibition, Institutions for the Future, curated by Biljana Ciric, as a part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011. The curatorial premise was to investigate small independent spaces and their at times complicit and antagonistic relation to the institution and how they have effectively become para-institutions. Like a parasite, the relationships can be beneficial or pathogenic, and those relationships are always in a state of negotiation and flux. 
 
Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?
 
For me, increasing contemporary art is residing to a greater degree in the overall human enquiry. What I mean by this is that I am finding greater value in situation contemporary art practice along other fields of investigation, such as the sciences. They all have the potential to destroy existing paradigms and allow us to understand the universe to greater complexity or simplicity. Visual culture and the sciences go hand in hand, any art historian can attest to the development of optics, perspective, color theory, etc. Art and visual theory are certainly not detrimental to fields of art history or contemporary art criticism, anyone advocating that these fields can remain hermetically “pure” is delusional and in my opinion, cannibalistic – they are eating themselves to their own detriment. Laying blame externally is the symptom.
 
Are we trapped in a trope of 'the contemporary'?
 
Yes, absolutely, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it.
 
Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?
 
Yes, but this is a great starting question for a much longer investigation. Suffice to say here, do not restrict territoriality to physical space (ie. Nation, geographic region, identity) but see territoriality as a conceptual space.
 
How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?
 
Sometimes successfully, but very often in a kitschy manner. For me, looking at history and earlier practice is valuable, but really only if something can be recontextualized into a new meaning. We all know and have seen instances where the “updated traditional” has become farcical, clownish or at times, downright insulting.  I think a successful translation requires some commitment and intimacy and not all of us, that is artists, have the will or desire to truly understand the traditional beyond the signifiers alone. But for those that do, something can be learned and better yet, informed.
 
Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?
 
The rise of anything that has the potential to eclipse fair play, counter-opinion  has the potential, and even expectation to endanger – whether the market, institution, regulatory organs, or even a bunch of solipsistic artists clawing for superior vantage. As with many issues dealing with culture, they are complex and dynamic systems, and the regulation is the interplay of competing forces and interests. Democracy is vacant without it, and so is art.

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Sat 12/31/2011 12:21 PM
Kurt Chan, Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

Contemporary art is a process that constantly redefines and probes its own boundaries. This process is propelled by artists, curators, art critics and intermediaries in the field; it cannot be defined by a unitary art institution. The flexibility and responsiveness of an individual is usually more acute and quicker than that of an institution, thus an individual’s artistic activities can better interact with and respond to other ideological trends in the society. [This interaction] in turn generate[s] the contemporary spirit. AAA’s function is to record and archive ‘the process of becoming’ in contemporary art – that which remains continuous in this domain. Sometimes she can initiate timely cooperation with other individuals or institutions, and actively ‘mold’ our present time. [Yet] [t]he paradox is this: the effectiveness of selecting and archiving artistic documents/documentation is a verdict that only history can cast – ‘who’ uses the Archive, and ‘how’ the Archive’s collection would be utilised in the future are vital to the integrity and power of AAA’s voice.

Most believe that artists’ or researchers’ activities in the arts are unpredictable because they conduct individualistic, unique and creative work. On the contrary, the [macro] development of such activities is closely connected to and influenced by contemporary social conditions. For example, the operation of an ‘institution’ must comply with certain historical conditions and professional codes of practice, such as scientific methods, and/or academic standards. The ‘institution’s’ mode of operation and ‘deliverables’ must be credible and share the same language as other institutions; only then can institutions conduct exchanges and transfers. If we see the individual as sensitive, flexible and multi-faceted, then the institution must be slow, cautious, and authoritative…

If any individual wishes to enhance his/her personal practice and development, he/she must comply with the institution’s criterion and identify common ground with it. Currently the distance between institution and individual is narrowing, as artistic practitioners and institutions both share a complicated, delicate relationship with the university. Universities are now the breeding ground of artistic practitioners; when artistic practice becomes increasingly intellectual, artistic institutions inevitably operate under the same knowledge system. Hence [artistic practice and artistic mechanism] share a certain kinship. Art practitioners’ ability to adapt to institutions should not be a problem once the arts is well established in the university system as an academic discipline. Nowadays many of Hong Kong’s young artists know how to not only find a platform that suits their practices, but also to waltz with related institutions.

In the past ten years, the tertiary level art curriculum has significantly configured itself to accommodate artistic trends and discourses. The pedagogical content of the discipline is no longer divided by medium, and critical theory is introduced as well. These [changes] allow for a different option in the interpretation of art, one that is alternative to traditional art history. [These changes] lead the reform of art education, and simultaneously influence the leanings of artistic institutions. The factors above illustrate the relationship between the individual and institution within art’s ecosystem, which is evolving from a subordinate to an interactive one. At least this seems to be the case in Hong Kong.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

In Hong Kong, contemporary art and visual culture, as with many other bodies of knowledge, are ‘transplanted’ from the West. The result of such ‘transplant’ is that [we] have lost/forgone the general cognition of that knowledge’s historical development, as well as its relationship with other bodies of knowledge. When numerous fragments replace the whole and become the entirety, we can only rely on our imagination to fill in the gaps between the fragments. While creativity is involved [in this process of filling the gaps], there exists even more ‘misinterpretation.’

The popularisation of Visual Culture in Hong Kong occurred within the last ten years. Discourses around contemporary art in Hong Kong used to be anchored on the framework of art history. Before it developed to become today’s discussion that centres on visual culture and theory of social participation, it was first influenced by literary theory and semantics in the 1980s, and critical theory in the 1990s. To a certain extent, contemporary art in Hong Kong has constantly referenced other academic theories as it develops and attempts to describe evolving contemporary methods and issues. [Hong Kong contemporary art/contemporary art in Hong Kong] stems from traditional, independent systems of knowledge, such as art history, and has since expanded more broadly to daily life, applying itself to politics and culture. As noted earlier, Hong Kong’s art history is partly constituted by ‘ ‘horizontal transplant.’ Its axes are in reality a culmination of cross-sections borrowed from the West. Hence it would not be surprising if Hong Kong contemporary art/contemporary art in Hong Kong is included as a classic example/model of visual culture. After all, this is an international trend; [what singles out one place from the other] is how [this trend] is put into practice and the results it yields…

Art criticism in Hong Kong has traditionally been based on art history, as the origin and existence of artistic autonomy during modernism can only be derived from art’s historical development. As art began to integrate with other disciplines and engage in dialogue with the society, it was necessary to borrow from other academic disciplines in order to develop methods and tools that describe and discuss contemporary art. At the same time, traditional art history began to lose its original position, and its effective voice in contemporary art. This has indirectly contributed to art history’s opposition with critical theory.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

‘The contemporary’ for me refers to the collective consciousness of an entire generation; it is an acknowledgement of contemporary life. In this informational age, being ‘contemporary’ is even a recognition and pursuit of globalisation; it makes us feel as if we are standing at the forefront of global culture. ‘The contemporary’ in art consists of two perplexing aspects. On one hand it establishes itself in the hopes of surpassing ‘the immediate past’ of ‘the contemporary’; it situates between the past and the future, illustrating not only progress but also the courage required for new discoveries. On the other hand, ‘the contemporary’ loses its charm and individuality when it becomes an artistic consensus and is celebrated by everyone.

For many art practitioners nowadays, being ‘contemporary’ is a responsibility. It is something one must do in order to prove how one is positively facing the challenges of his/her own time. Being ‘contemporary’ can of course be simply a trend, something one does in order to feel up to date.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

If I understood this premise correctly, the Internet has blurred geographical boundaries and barriers. Our understanding of the world is very easily influenced by regions with high levels of communication freedoms and technology. On the contrary, traditional culture holds more sway on individuals in areas where information is more restricted. In any case, our cognition of brief events or history is more broadly conditioned and affected by the hybrid influence of geographical location and informational flow. If we include the Internet as a factor that affects geographical boundaries, then our understanding of time and history boils down to the question of how quickly information travels.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

The practice of ‘contemporary art’ has spread to every corner of the world. In order to boost their ‘regional characteristics,’ and hence their competitiveness and attractiveness, [some regions] have to rely on local cultural symbols and traditional craftsmanship. In today’s world, technology is an essential part of our daily lives, and art practitioners of cosmopolitan cities are all using similar methods and techniques to express [themselves]. It is only natural when the audience becomes tired of a certain type of content and form, their gaze shifts to the up-and-coming nations/countries, where local artists would adjust their practices to gain access into the international art scene. In a certain way artists from these burgeoning nations/countries and the international art scene are ‘co-conspirators.’

According to my own observation, contemporary artists are often interested in traditional crafts out of utilitarian purposes. They may not share a symbiotic relationship with traditional crafts. Traditional crafts are often just one other option amidst a range of artistic methods. Craftsmen who are seriously committed to the craft, on the other hand, may not be able to follow or agree with contemporary art. The possibility of their appearances in contemporary art occasions may depend on the cooperation with artists or the mediation of curators.

The manifestation of regional traditional crafts in contemporary art can be seen as a kind of ‘re-creation’; it is a strategy that both resists and integrates the phenomenon of globalisation.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Creative industries or artistic institutions and ‘political participatory art’ are all hot spots of development in contemporary art. However, they take on different paths and do not openly clash with each other yet. This is because they do not need to encounter each other at the same occasion. In Hong Kong, they have their own piece of centre stage. Contemporary art forms are diversified to an extent such that traditional venues and technical support are not necessary; thus the robustness of artistic institutions do not definitively affect practitioners who assume the streets and fluid art forms as their performative platform.

Creative industry is a form of commercial activity, in which the definition of a work of art is relaxed to accommodate commercial strategies in a more comprehensive and flexible manner. This expansion of capitalism would undoubtedly stir up a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction amongst artists. But amongst the examples we are aware of, even in occasions where concepts are in conflict, both parties illustrate their points of view via, and through, the appearance of the other party. To view the issue from another perspective, [politically engaged art and commercial activities] are each other’s necessary ‘enemy.’ Hong Kong is a society that is accustomed to capitalism and various kinds of social struggle; it usually would not seek to suppress the minority who practices ‘social participatory art.’

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Thu 1/5/2012 10:12 AM
Mella Jaarsma, Director of Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art?

With the fast changes and developments in the visual art in Indonesia over the last five years which was dominated by the art market I think that it is important for the institutions to re-question the relevance of art and what is the function of art in a society like Indonesia.

In last decades all Asian countries have proven that the visuals art played a significant role in their national developments. Visual arts created awareness on social, political and education issues and contributed on identity and democratic reflections. Is art still an alternative way to look differently at the things, which questions and can change perspectives?

Under the Suharto regime till 1998 art was politics, running Cemeti Art House was politics, art was an independent critical statement. During the reformation period till beginning 2000, art was educational, community based, enriching, capacity building, digging history, reflective and searching content to personal, local and global reflections.

And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

In the Indonesian art scene up till today, everything lies in the hands of private initiators. These are the artists, curators, collectors, but also the art workers at galleries, private museums, auction houses and foundations. They are defining the nature and pace of art, developments and discourses, which are flourishing as never before. Unfortunately, the Indonesian government doesn’t see the importance yet of strengthening the Indonesian identity and proud by collecting modern and contemporary art and creating public accesses. Government supported museums with modern / contemporary art collections in the charge of academic curators, which conserve as well as establish quality, do not exist yet. There is no established national art infrastructure that supports artists, art institutions, contemporary art museums, or initiatives.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Yes contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, but this is specific for urban settings. The differences between city and village life is still very much separating contemporary and traditional art practices. In urban art developments we see that the increased attention to art from a small elite has brought art to a wider audience. I visited the opening night of the last ART/JOG July 2011, an artists’ art fair in Yogyakarta, and it was attended by more than a thousand people on the opening night. Alongside the regular local and international art public, the space was filled with youngsters.

Contemporary art is hot, and it is super cool to be photographed in front of an artwork, and later share the photo on Facebook. This amazingly broad local support is promising.

Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

I don’t think so, they will feed each other, because they are all very young disciplines and there doesn’t exist specific frameworks for art theory and art history.

Are we trapped in the trope of ‘the contemporary’?

I don’t think so, in the context of Indonesia, many discussions took place about the contemporary and ‘tradition’. While tradition is not a stagnant thing of the past, but a reality in current life in Indonesia, it is part of the contemporary discourse and playing an important role in art developments.

Is temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

How do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

The largest challenge facing the Indonesian art world at the hands of market forces is how to ensure the continued support to strengthen foundation for a potent and relevant art movement in the future. Up until recently, Indonesia, as a developing country, has attracted international funding for NGOs to support social and cultural programs. For example, HIVOS, Prince Claus Fund, Asia Cultural Council and The Ford Foundation, supported institutions such as Ruang Rupa, The Indonesian Visual Art Archive, Kelola and Cemeti Art House, that have contributed to artists’ exchange programs, archiving, networking, art management programs, publications, traveling exhibitions, research, etc. I see this as support to the “cooking” that has resulted in the developments of the art world that we enjoy today.

Recently, however, the foreign funding tabs are slowly closing, and with little government support for art initiatives and research, how can we create a sense of public responsibility for art development? Do we have to depend on funding from companies and philanthropies? And if so, how can we ensure that attention and support is given to the “cooking” that ensures what we eat in the future? We need support of creative stimulation to keep different art forms alive, and to influence critical discourse and perspectives. To respond to this, around 20 art organizations from various disciplines, such as dance, theater, film and art management, have bundled their strengths and founded the “Indonesian Art Coalition” (Koalisi Seni Indonesia). The aim of the foundation is to establish a national supporting body for the arts that can advocate for the importance of art in our lives and in society at large, and to support high quality, non-commercial art.

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Mon 1/16/2012 1:06 AM
Martina Köppel-Yang, Independent scholar and curator

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

The institution has always played an important role in the development of contemporary Chinese art, and official guidelines set the framework in which contemporary art is allowed to develop still today. The reasons for this extremely close and complicated relationship between individual practice and institution are not only to find in the structure of the communist art bureaucracy itself. We have to search much earlier. We can find origins of this relationship in the May Fourth Movement and the reform of the Chinese education system through Cai Yuanpei in 1917. Cai claimed to replace Confucian teaching through aesthetic and artistic education to enhance the modernization of Republican China. Art was considered an instrument educating the individual and had to play a crucial role in reforming society. Hence, individual artistic practice was naturally embedded in and closely intertwined with institutional practice and establishment. The close relationship between institution and individual practice can thus be considered as characteristic of Chinese modernity. (This is fundamentally different from the Western tradition.) As the project of a Chinese modernity was revived after the Cultural Revolution, this basic relationship did not change.

In the first decade after the Cultural Revolution the Chinese avant-garde developed in ideological and institutional gaps within the official art bureaucracy. Institutions, such as art academies or art magazines, were first to promote contemporary art, for example through reforms in teaching methods or through publications and the organization of conferences. The museum as an institution played a minor role in the 1980s. Today, of course, museums are part of the so-called cultural industries, a sector created under the guideline of the Three Represents. With the guideline of the Three Represents that officially recognizes contemporary art and culture as part of the culture of the progressive China the overall assimilation of individual and alternative practice in the official discourse has further been enhanced. Often described as normalization in the Western sense, meaning the modeling of an art scene following Western standards, this development nevertheless puts artists and individual practice in a difficult position.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Asian cultures are young cultures and therefore the position of youth culture with all its manifestations, if visual or other, plays an important role also in the contemporary art of this region. Further, the influence or interaction with everyday life plays an important role in contemporary art from Asia. To be honest, I do not understand the second part of your question.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

We are only trapped if we want to be trapped.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

I think temporality and historicity are expressions of a certain culture, concepts related to a specific worldview. They are therefore not only based on territoriality but also related to a specific time.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

This is a complex question that could be the subject of a PHD thesis. I here can only give a very concise answer. There are different approaches of translating the traditional and vernacular into contemporary practices. To simplify, I wish to name several kinds: there is translation on a formal, a symbolic and a discursive level, using different strategies, from assimilation to deconstruction and appropriation. The apparently most successful formula of translating the vernacular and the traditional into the contemporary seems to be the use of symbols from the traditional and vernacular pool and to insert them into a contemporary language environment. Artists, like for example Cai Guoqiang and Zhang Huan, gained their international recognition by using this kind of appropriative method. This method, even though successful in the sense of being welcomed by a large public, does not provide innovative concepts. Other artists, like for example Huang Yongping, employed a deconstructive method in the 1980s and early 1990s and successfully intervened on a discursive level. Zheng Guogu again mixes elements of traditional, vernacular, popular and contemporary culture, creating strong artistic statements that are rooted in his local environment and gain a large recognition on an international level. Yang Jiechang then approaches contemporary concepts and context by using traditional techniques and formal language. One thing is sure, traditional and vernacular practices are a vital source for contemporary artists from Asia.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

This is a question to be asked not only in the context of Asian art, but of art and any intellectual expression as such. If we consider language an institution, then the very act of speaking makes us enter an institutional system. Yet, in order to express ourselves, we have to make use of some kind of language. Enhancing the diversity of language, of the institutional system, should be considered beneficial. However, we have to decide how, with whom and in what context to speak. Important is to be aware of the respective situation and to intervene correspondingly. Politically engaged art has always existed in the PR China, even during the Cultural Revolution. With a clear adversary it seems easier to find a strong and pure position. The rise of institutions, the growing importance of the art market, hence the pluralization of the scene and not to forget globalization, and in particular the globalization of the art market, make the situation more complicated and blurry. This means the methods of intervention have to be adjusted correspondingly. Today individual agency has to intervene more intelligently, with more subtlety and complexity to be efficient. The artist who disguises himself into a dissident and engages in mediatized performances and events is certainly not the most interesting and true political artist. We are living in an era where the search for new paradigms and models is crucial. Contemporary Asian art with its specific cultural background here can contribute interesting and far-reaching positions.

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Mon 1/16/2012 6:32 PM
Judy Freya Sibayan,
Artist and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at De La Salle University, Manila

Institutional Critique, the Contemporary and Beyond

My thoughts on the contemporary necessarily issue from the perspective of my praxis of Institutional Critique (IC). Parodic performances of the sites of art production (sites of production of symbolic value), my works are enacted critiques of the institution of art to which I belong. Thus, as an auto-critical practice, Institutional Critique is the work of the “ex-centric” (the inside-outsider). It is work that necessitates the institution to be accountable to the imperatives of the present. It is work that results in the institution being inevitably contemporary. But first a clarification of the object of this critique—what is now considered the institution of art—is necessary. I cite here the description given by Andrea Fraser, one of the most articulate third generation IC practitioners:

From 1969 on, a conception of the “institution of art” begins to emerge that includes not just themuseum, nor even only the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, but the entire field of art as a social universe. In works of artists associated with Institutional Critique, it came to encompass all the sites in which art is shown— from museums and galleries to corporate offices and collector’s homes, and even public space when art is installed there. It also includes the sites of the production of art discourse: art magazines, catalogues, art columns in the popular press, symposia, and lectures. And it also includes the sites of the production of producers of art and art discourse: studio-art, art-history, and now curatorial-studies program…and finally it also includes all the “lookers, buyers, dealers and makers” themselves (in Welchman 128-129).

And even art and artists that “generally figure as antagonistically opposed to an institution that incorporates, co-opts, commodifies, and otherwise misappropriates once radical—and uninstitutionalized—practices,” (Fraser in Welchman127) are all part of the institution of art. For according to artist/theorist Victor Burgin, artists are handed down roles “by a particular history, through particular institutions, and whether we choose to work within or without these given history or institutions, for or against them, our relationship to them is inescapable” (Burgin 158). Institutional Critique therefore, requires incisive analysis of its object. This art practice, Fraser claims,

can only be defined by a methodology of critically reflexive site specificity… Institutional Critique can be distinguished first of all from site-specific practice that deal primarily with the physical, formal, and architectural aspects of places and spaces. Institutional Critique engages sites above all as social sites, structured sets of 2 relations that are fundamentally social relations. To say that Institutional Critique engages such sites reflexively is to specify that included among the relations that define any site are both our relations to that site and the social conditions of those relations (in Welchman 305-306).

Fraser, a great enthusiast of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of the hierarchies and conflicts of the art world, has openly credited reflexivity, one of the major tenets of Bourdieu’s sociological practice, as having convinced her of “the fallacy of any attempts to think of art outside or opposed to its institutions” (Malone 13). In The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu’s most comprehensive text on the subject, he depicts the artworld as 

a field of struggles where agents—artists, critics, curators, dealers, collectors, academics—engage in competition for control of interests and resources, and where belief of the value of the work is part of the reality of the work. Bourdieu understood the work of art as a manifestation of the cultural field as a whole, in which all the powers of the field, and all the determinisms inherent in its structure and functioning are concentrated (Malone 12).

Consequently, the value of the work of art must be understood as “socially constituted” since according to Bourdieu rather than an instance of individual creativity, the very existence of the work of art is

radically contingent on a very complex and constantly changing set of circumstances involving multiple social and institutional factors… art and [its] respective producers do not exist independently of a complex institutional framework which authorizes, enables, empowers and legitimizes them. This framework must be incorporated into any analysis that pretends to provide a thorough understanding of cultural goods and practices (Johnson in Bourdieu 10).

Therefore

Failure to objectify and analyze the relationship between the analyzer and his or her object of analysis can result in the analyzer (read: artist, curator, art historian, critic) assuming a privileged position and effacing relations of power that may be inherent in the relationship (Malone 13).

Thus, as believers of the value of art, as members of the institution of art, all who work in the artworld contribute to the production of the value of art—making the production of art intersubjective. Institutional Critique requires that we be reflexive of our part in this process of value production. And to be reflexive is to be critical of the institution which is to say we do not affirm, expand or reinforce our relationship to it. To be critical is to problematize and change the institution, and at the same time change our relationship to it (Fraser in Welchman 306).

The field of cultural production is thus a self-perpetuating sphere of belief where the symbolic power of the products of the art institution is sustained by an extensive social apparatus incorporating museums, art galleries, art histories, publishing houses, art and cultural studies programs, cultural centers, art schools, auction houses, libraries and so forth. Further, “Symbolic power is closely intertwined with—but not reducible to—economic and political power, and thus serves a legitimating function (Johnson in Bourdieu 2).” It is precisely the structure of the institution of art and particularly what is hierarchical in this structure producing “forms of power and domination, symbolic and material violence that Institutional Critique aims to transform in its immediate field of activity,” (Fraser in Welchman 306) specially with regard to the encroachment of other fields such as the economic field and its instrumentalization of art. Art’s condition as having symbolic value renders it exploitable for economic and symbolic profit no matter how autonomous its makers deem their work to be and exploitable “often not in spite of but because of their autonomy, an autonomy that determines their existence not only as objects or ideas but as material or even immaterial commodities” (Fraser in Welchman 306-307). Institutional Critique like many other radical practices of the 1960s, emerged with the realization of artists that this is the condition of all works of art.

Recognizing the partial and ideological character of artistic autonomy, Institutional Critique developed not as a further attack on that autonomy, but rather as a defense of art (and art institution) against such exploitation, either through reflection on the discursive and systematic mechanisms of reification and instrumentalization…or through the development of rigorously transitory…practices that resisted commodification (Fraser in Welchman 307).

And necessary and essential in accomplishing this critique is the enactment of the critique itself. Fraser points out that

the methodology of critically reflexive site-specificity may have first emerged as a practical principle. If you want to change something, a relation, particularly a relation of power, the best, if not the only way to accomplish such change is by intervening in the enactment of that  relation…artistic interventions can only work effectively on relations made “actual manifest” in a given situation…And this is what makes Institutional Critique so profoundly difficult, because to intervene in relations in their enactment also always means as you yourself participate in their enactment, however self-consciously (in Welchman 307).

What better way then for me to enact self-consciously the problematization, transformation

and the changing of my relationship to the institution of art as a social site than through performance art which as a “nonreproductive” art according to Peggy Phelan in Unmarked, the Politics of Performance, is able to clog “the smooth machinery or reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital…giving performance art its oppositional edge” (148). First a performance of a moving away from a literal center—the Cultural Center of the Philippines, then eventually a practice that moved away from a dependency on the resources and valuation of art establishments, my work stemmed from my unhappiness, my “dis-ease” with this Center for burdening its workforce with work for the purpose of

institutional legitimacy through the power of privileging a few artists at the cost of disenfranchising those who labored outside the modernist tenets of “progress, continuity, totality, mastery and the universal claim to history accepted as true" (Tucker 11).

Parodying the institution of art by appropriating key institutional roles that produce symbolic value and roles that socially constitute art; and eventually becoming an exhibition site myself (1), the work performed within the scale of my everyday life and resources, took the form of de-centering—the work of “the off-center, the ex-centric.” A term Linda Hutcheon coins in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism, the ex-centric “In place of faith in the great centered designs” substitutes “the concreteness of small circumstantiated struggles with its precise objectives capable of having a great effect because they change systems of relation” (60). A postmodernist subject, the ex-centric questions, contests and problematizes but does not destroy “centralized, totalized, hierarchized, closed systems…part of its questioning involves an energizing and rethinking of margins and edges, of what does not fit the humanly constructed notion of the center” (Hutcheon 41-42)—a stance that positions the ex-centric paradoxically both inside and outside. Given this position as an inside-outsider, the excentric expediently uses parody as its mode of critique precisely for the genre’s “essential reflexivity, its capacity to reflect critically back upon itself, not merely upon its target” (Hanoosh 113). If we were to do a critique of the institution of which we are members, to be inside yet outside is the most prudent and tenable place to locate ourselves. This implies, we eschew the notion of critical distance which is, to end with Fraser,

also the basis for the ambivalence of Institutional Critique because while these relations may be fundamentally social, they are never only “out there,” in sites and situations, much less institutions,” that are discrete and separable from ourselves. We are the institution of art: the object of our critiques, our attacks, is always also inside ourselves (in Welchman 307).

If in my parodic performances “the very walls of the traditional museum and the very definition of a work of art come under fire,” (Hutcheon 60) from a larger perspective, the very struggle of what it means for us to be change agents in the field of cultural production— all our utterances and actions in this social matrix enacted as our struggle over the production, circulation, consumption and ultimately over the social value of art—must be called constantly into crisis. Therefore, necessitating artists to be accountable to the imperatives of the present, Institutional Critique logically calls art to be contemporary.

But, beyond the term and the practice of Institutional Critique, there still remains the crucial project of ceaselessly problematizing ourselves as the institution; of problematizing our part in the production of symbolic power and our partaking of this power. How do we produce symbolic value so as not to be exploited for economic profit? What should be our objects of study and praxis unto which we will confer value, status and legitimacy? How to wield this power so as not to be the source of domination? How to maintain critical agency so as to keep transforming thus renewing the institution now and in the future?


(1) My first major parodic work was Scapular Gallery Nomad where I wore/peformed a gallery daily for five years exhibiting 34 one-person exhibitions by other artists. I performed as curator, publisher, PR officer, dealer, designer and “builder” of several galleries, critic and archivist. The Museum of Mental Objects (MoMO), a performance for life, is my other major work where I am now the museum itself. Works are whispered to MoMO so as to have no palpable objects to be collected, installed, exhibited and commodified by and in the museum.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. (Ed) Randal Johnson Columbia University Press, 1993.
Burgin, Victor. The End of Art Theory. London: McMillan Education, Ltd., 1986.
Fraser, Andrea. “What is Institutional Critique?” in Institutional Critique and After. Ed. John C. Welchman. Centralweg: SoCCCAs and JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag AG 2006.
. “Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” in Institutional Critique and After. Ed. John C. Welchman. Centralweg: SoCCCAs and JRP/Ringier
Kunstverlag AG, 2006.
Hanoosh, Michelle. “The Reflexive Function of Parody.” Comparative Literature, Spring, 1989: 113-127.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.
Malone, Meredith. Andrea Fraser, What do I as an artist provide? St. Louis, Washington: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2007.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked, the Politics of Performance London: Routledge, 1996.
Tucker, Marcia. “Whose on first, issues of cultural equity in today’s museums.” In Different Voices: A Social, Cultural and Historical Framework for Change in the American Art Museum. Ed. M. Mitchell. New York: Association of Art Museum Directors, 1992.

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Thu 1/19/2012 4:21 PM
David Clarke, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Hong Kong


Art Now: Beyond the Contemporary

The notion of the modern, used within artistic discourse, can function analytically since one can relate modernity in culture to larger historical patterns, such as the rise of capitalism. For me the term ‘contemporary’ is not embedded in this way in a larger explanatory analysis, and thus I don’t find it useful as an analytical category. I use the term out of convenience (it has become so widespread as to be more or less unavoidable at present), but don’t expect it to be load-bearing, to help explain things in any deeper way. Used to describe art in a situational manner, to refer to art made in times adjacent to the present moment, its referent is something of a moving target and it doesn’t really help us much when we want to take the more external perspective on time which historical explanation requires.

Being concerned with the present moment is of course a good thing – we need to live in the now, even if we don’t always want to be living for the now – but accepting some ideology of the contemporary doesn’t really help with this. The ‘moving target’ nature of the contemporary leads to many cases where academic fieldwork which was done in what was then the present moment is (because of the time taken by the process of scholarly production) published and read as comment on the art of an arbitrarily-defined moment in the recent past, but without the value of historical contextualization which the study of such art needs. Art made in any given present moment is often deeply engaged with art made in past moments – many works by Picasso or De Chirico, for instance, sprang from a dialogue with the art of other times. Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles installation of 2011 cannot be comprehended in any meaningful way without reference to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, first made almost exactly a hundred years earlier in 1913. Instead of valorizing certain things being made now as ‘contemporary’, why not treat the whole field of visual production surviving into the present moment as a potential source of inspiration for now (whether we are a maker or a spectator of art)? The very old can be just as paradigm-busting for our present-day consciousness as the very recent – can be radically new to us even if not newly made - so why bracket it off from consideration? As [Francis] Picabia once said, ‘there is no antiquity’ - to think that there is ‘antiquity’ is perhaps to suffer from a lack of empathy with humans from other times and places.

In my writing on Chinese art I have tended to avoid a focus on the ‘contemporary’ period alone, wishing to deal with it alongside earlier modern moments as part of a continuum. I put modern and contemporary Chinese art together in my most recent book Chinese Art and its Encounter with the World, for instance, as well as in my immediately previous book-length study, Water and Art. This refusal of an artificial distinction between modern and contemporary is particularly important in the case of non-Western art, since it has become easy for Western institutions to incorporate art from other parts of the world within decontextualized presentations of the contemporary without any serious threat to Western cultural hegemony. Some contemporary Chinese artists are now widely known in the West, yet Chinese modernism remains an almost unexplored territory. Western museums of modern art seem unlikely to move their Matisses and Mondrians to make wall space for it any time soon, since to do so would threaten Western-centred cultural narratives in a more fundamental way than can currently be accommodated.

A similar desire to refuse the ideology of the contemporary lay behind a decision of the Museums Advisory Group, which came up with the conceptual plan for the projected institution M+ on Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District waterfront site. The group chose to make ‘now’ the temporal focus of M+ instead of using the loaded term ‘contemporary’ (it also broadened the focus from ‘art’ to ‘visual culture’ as a whole, and chose ‘here’ – i.e. Hong Kong – as its spatial focus rather than - say – ‘China’). By not proposing a contemporary art museum for West Kowloon the intention was to further open up the range of objects that could potentially be displayed – not only would all kinds of visual culture be included but potentially that culture could come from any time period. Relevance to ‘now’ – something open in nature and subject to constant curatorial redefinition and justification – would be the only given temporal frame. Undoubtedly there will be a pressure to normalize M+ as the conceptual plan is actualized (already Hong Kong Government officials frequently refer to it as a ‘museum’, when the whole point of the ‘+’ sign is to indicate that it is conceived as more than that), and it will be interesting to see if as a result it comes to be more like a standard model for a contemporary art museum.

Of course, we can see that the whole of consumer culture has an economically necessary orientation towards the newly-produced product, and a valorization of the contemporary helps art to sit happily within this field. But to the extent that thinking about art has some autonomy from the marketplace surely we would want to consciously move away from this undue emphasis on the newly produced. The important thing is to place new and not so new art within the same frame, not to denigrate the former in favour of the latter (or vice versa). Such a phenomenon of denigration seems to occur in the field of classical music, where most orchestras tend to serve up a diet of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music to a twenty-first-century audience, but rarely risk the presentation of recently-composed music. Although there are those in the contemporary art world who seem happy to ignore earlier art the reverse is also true – art historians can often be allergic to the contemporary. I met this for instance when I submitted an article on recent Chinese art for consideration by a leading Western academic art history journal. Although that journal claims to publish on all areas of art history the editor at that time refused to send my article out for peer review because it dealt with living artists (as if history was a time period rather than a method). If such barriers as this could be broken down then the discourse on recently-created art could benefit more from insights derived from historical methodologies and knowledge bases, while art history in its turn could benefit from the lively perspectives that art critical writing is capable of, and from its clear desire to engage with the present day.

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Wed 1/25/2012 5:00 PM
Frank Vigneron, Professor in the Department of Fine Arts of Chinese University of Hong Kong

Doxa and Episteme of the Contemporary

It is apparently very difficult to come to a consensus on what constitutes the contemporary, if only because it seems to float in different niches in different parts of the world, but also because most people do not talk about the same things when they refer to that term. A French humorist once said that it was possible to joke about everything but not with everybody, it seems the same applies to the use of the expression ‘contemporary art’ and, depending on whom one is talking to and where, the contemporary takes on a multitude of different forms in conversations. If I wanted to be more academic, I would remind the reader that Aristotle considered that specialist knowledge was ‘episteme’ while the realm of opinion was ‘doxa’ – a concept that became essential to Pierre Bourdieu – and that ‘contemporary’ takes on very different values in both the doxa and the episteme.

For instance, I recently tried to define for MA students the domain of postmodern art, an expression that I still find acceptable because it clearly establishes the limits between the modern (unfortunately itself an oftentimes vague notion, although seeing it as a tension between art for art’s sake and avant-garde art usually comes in pretty handy) and what was different from it. The postmodern has obviously come out of fashion because too many people have tried to apply it to everything in its heyday, a habit that has thankfully disappeared, but it has been given a very clear domain in art quite a long time ago by Craig Owens (the characteristics of postmodern art are ‘Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization’). (1) I generally conclude such a series of lectures by reiterating the fall from grace of the expression ‘postmodern art’ and how it is safer nowadays to refer to it as ‘contemporary art,’ trying – desperately – to give as firm a footing as I could to such notions. (2)

In spite of all my precautions, when the time came to write a term paper about a contemporary artist, she chose a 70 year-old local Chinese painter (not a famous name either, it was her own Chinese painting teacher whose style was closely related to that of Lin Fengmian, an artist everyone agrees on calling modernist today) and called him a postmodern painter without once justifying this choice. As a teacher, I obviously expected her to use the concepts introduced during the lectures but apparently, just living and painting today was enough to give him this title. I now realized she would never have dared call him a contemporary artist, but postmodern was fine since it somehow related to modern, something of the past now, and seemed to somehow come after it, which would put his work in the present apparently.

The other reason why this student was happy to use – wrongly – the expression ‘postmodern art’ was because it did not rely on the usual dichotomy, strongly polarized in Hong Kong as in Mainland China, of traditional/contemporary. If what constitutes the contemporary is obviously terribly unclear in the doxa of art in Hong Kong (but vagueness and contradictions are the foundations of doxa, so there is nothing unexpected here), unfortunately, the idea of the contemporary is not much clearer in the episteme of art criticism and even academia seems at a loss to clearly define the limits of the contemporary. Episteme should be the domain of the institutions but it is also clear that none of them – be it museums, publications, university art departments and cultural studies departments, etc. – will ever be able to establish durable limits to the concept of contemporary, because institutions too cannot avoid the pressures of the doxa and because their ideology is after all formulated and manipulated by people who cannot be excepted from social interactions where various habitus need to take shape.

Being myself part of the institutions that have to manipulate these notions, I am constantly running into walls, walls establish by students (as I have just mentioned) and by other colleagues. I was asked a few times by studio art colleagues what they should answer to students and other persons (once a journalist) when they require a definition of terms like ‘experimental art,’ and I sometimes answered that the best way to avoid being hopelessly vague is to rely on social sciences and take the problem by the other end: instead of defining the contemporary from inside institutional practices, try to see what everyone has to say about that through surveys and questionnaires… All right, I admit now that this was a way to avoid the issue as I knew perfectly well no one would ever deal with this problem in such a complex fashion.

These walls we constantly run into when dealing with the contemporary in the classroom and in academic papers are actually beneficial because they constantly reshape – and hopefully each time get us a little closer to – a proper understanding of what constitutes the contemporary. Not being able, in this shifting conceptual landscape, to give it a positive definition, I see no reason to avoid the relational model to define the limits of the contemporary (for instance, I tried to use a Piaget group, the famous relational model used by structuralism, to define the various art practices present in Hong Kong, in an article that will be published in the next issue of the Hong Kong Art Yearbook published by the Fine Arts Department, CUHK (3), but it does not solve everything and forces the reader to accept from the start that there is no ontology, no a priori of the contemporary, a notion that will make many people fairly uncomfortable.

I was once again faced with the many inconsistencies inherent in this discourse when, a couple of years ago, I had to write outcomes for my lectures at CUHK. In one of the outcomes written for the course on Hong Kong art, there was a mention of art practices being ‘more contemporary’ than others. I was very much aware of the grammatical difficulties involved in this statement, but thought they were making sense because I intended to define these practices within this relational model: something looks traditional when confronted with something that looks contemporary, one domain needing the other to establish boundaries. In any case, I had to change it into something that sounded like it was possible to define in positive terms the contemporary, because the proof reader of these course outcomes (then a very high ranking academic in the university hierarchy who did not take contradiction lightly) could not accept this grammatical inconsistency. Don’t think I acted spinelessly during that little episode though, I just believed spending too much effort on changing a course description was not worth it, I would always address the issue in the classroom anyway.

The relational model I have in mind to define the contemporary (and every other art practice in the process), can in fact be extraordinarily complex because it involves many other ‘Others’ to start making sense. It does not rely entirely on art history methodology to function and requires a great deal of other points of view (the most important being Bourdieusian sociology and notions like cultural capital and habitus) to start painting vivid enough portraits of all the art practices in a place like Hong Kong. In the end, the complexities of such an endeavor also emphasize the fact that such a methodology can only be applied to fairly narrow geographical and cultural domains: tying the same kind of relational model to a country the size of China would be so complex, would have to include so many different art practices in so many different contexts, that it would require a large team of researchers a fairly long time to be consistent and exhaustive


(1) In The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism, Craig Owens follows the philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and notes that modernist critical theory rejected allegory as a mode of conveying meaning. He then claims that it was the re-emergence of allegorical modes in the art of the nineteen fifties and sixties which made that art incomprehensible according to the modernist canons of artistic quality. For Owens, allegory occurs when one text is doubled by another and he next shows that it appears everywhere in the new art of his time but on strictly visual grounds. Since allegory consists in doubling an image with a secondary meaning, he shows that it can be found in the work of Sherie Levine (born 1947); the artist widely acknowledged to be the creator of the concept of ‘appropriation.’ This process of appropriation, which can be found also in the work of major artists like Robert Longo (born 1953) and Gerard Richter (born 1932), is therefore called ‘postmodern’ because it does not fit within any of the concepts of modernism. Postmodern art uses the whole spectrum of possibilities allegory offers. After considering the effects of this return of allegory in the art of the 1950s and 1960s, Owens treats us to one of the most concise definitions of the characteristics of postmodern art: ‘Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization – these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.’’ Harrison, C., Wood, P. and Gaiger, J. (ed.): Art in Theory: 1900-1990. An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 1051-1060.
(2) Although I do not mention it in my lectures, my own feeble efforts to come up with a notion to define such practices takes the shape of the expression ‘plastician art’ (Wu Hung, for instance, tried ‘experimental art’ in the 1990s). To avoid the problems attached to the use of a word that was already in existence at a time art was something so entirely different, I propose to use the name coined in France in the 1990s: instead of artist, I use the term ‘plasticien,’ and even Anglicize it by writing it plastician. The use of this Gallicism will also have the advantage of allowing us to avoid the term ‘contemporary’. Strictly speaking, ‘contemporary art’ would be all the present cultural activities called ‘art’ by their practitioners, but in reality ‘contemporary art’ is an expression only used for certain types of art like installation, performance, video art and a very narrow range of paintings.
(3) To put it simply, I have described in this forthcoming article some of the conflicts generated by the ideas of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ in the art field of Hong Kong, these two habitus take on very specific forms in the SAR. The ‘traditional’ generally takes the shape of a ‘native’ Chinese art and the idea of ‘art made by the hand’ and ‘painting as art.’ The ‘contemporary’ generally takes the form of other variations on the idea of the traditional (sometimes simply called ‘Ink art’ although not everything in that category is actually made with ink), all the practices that the French prefer to call ‘art plasticien’ and, finally, all the practices involving some sort of interactivity and relational aesthetics.

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Sat 1/28/2012 9:07 AM
Patrick Flores, Professor in the Art Studies Department of University of the Philippines Diliman


Errant in Form

In thinking about the contemporary, a drawing by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya titled For Being Born Elsewhere (Por Haber Nacido en Otra Parte, 1814-1823) initiates a frisson. It is taken from a series of sketches depicting persons prosecuted by the Inquisition. The esteemed art historian Albert Boime describes the victims as wearing “the long conical cap known as the coroza and the tunic known as the sanbenito, which fit over the chest and upon which were inscribed the reasons for condemnation” primarily stemming from faith. It occurred to me that while in another time, to be born elsewhere meant fate worthy of death, an exclusion by virtue of a different genesis, in the ecology of the contemporary, to be birthed elsewhere might be a privilege, in fact an exception by virtue of a genetic, that is natural, difference. For a body to emerge in another place is to affirm a vast worldliness that enables equivalent histories and humanities to reciprocate, to demonstrate the index of belonging and the attendant violence and promise this belonging entails in the process of by turns being conquered and being in the world with others. “Being born elsewhere” is a condition and at the same time, in light of the word “for,” the basis for a decision to claim to have originated locally, to be native and folk not as heritage but as entitlement, and to be self-conscious about this lineage and the modernity of this self-consciousness, just like the feeling of others who have been verisimilarly born elsewhere in their own province and in a world within. It is this locality of origin, this autonomy of emergence eccentrically, that ensures the disposition to move beyond it, to explore the finitude of difference and the infinity of the new. It is this freedom to emerge elsewhere that guarantees the subject of contemporary means to properly participate in the project of emancipation or transcendence -- to be free, at last. The “contemporary” is, therefore, radical to the degree that it motivates us to at once internalize the totality of the self and of the universe and to transcend it. It is difficult to grasp this in language, but I think the “global” is nuanced enough a term to probe the “contemporary art” that we so diligently, if not vexingly, contemplate. It insinuates the constraint of the “all”; it prefigures “all” possibility in what a thinker so felicitously conceives as the “sudden vicinity of things.” On the one hand, there is the belief that global art or art that is made contemporaneously all over the world in the present is coordinated by some meta-structure of neo-liberal persuasion. On the other, there is the always-already resolute desire to resist this totality, an everyday hope that resistance would actually inhere in the truly worldly. In this vein, the “global contemporary” because it lives in the same time but in different places, at discrepant rhythms, through a gamut of vectors, is by nature, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher of the Baroque José Lezama Lima, “errant in form, but firmly rooted in its essences.” It is this errant form and essential rootedness that is quite elusive, too nimble to be caught by any instrumentalist impulse. But it is also neither eternally inchoate nor aleatory; it is errant, and therefore conscious of norm, aware of translation, decisively political; it is rooted, and therefore sensitive to origin and the future. It invests in the procedures of communication, dialogue, collaboration, reciprocity; it is determinate at the same time that it is chastened by the “commonality of finitude,” and so open to chance and precarity, and the dreams of lastingness. This construction site, this laboratory, this emergent place of making and unmaking, is an effort to create a situation of this play, speculation, critique, bricolage, going out on a limb for art that must outlive certain contexts that oftentimes refuse it, from an earth in near exhaustion to a multitude in unimaginable poverty and persecution. This reflection on the contemporary is derived in large part from my engagement as a member of the advisory committee of the project of the Zenter für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany called The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 in 2011. The initiative was bound to be a fraught one, threading the needle of the attempt to mark the co-incidents of the contemporary and to intimate its restless globality, thus the aspiration to create a sense of incompleteness, an on-going-ness that is generative and like ornament or patterns in textile, “open-endedly social.” But seen alongside an exhibitionary complex or any situation of historicization of the present, from the naming of art in the market and its belaboured critique to its remembrance in the history of art in whatever critical way this is enacted, a modality of a contingent contemporary in an art world still mainly beholden to “presentation” and the production of “event” may seem inevitably aberrant. The exhibition is fully formed, a collection of objects prone to becoming commodities, curated with authority, explained through a pedagogy, cued by themes, confined in space. It should appear then that the exhibition, regardless how it postures to be complete and sufficient, is ultimately incommensurate, always suffering from the lack that is not intuited: how it is made, how the public receives it, how its afterlife would transpire. It should appear, furthermore, that the exhibitionary, alongside the capture in discourse, does not overdetermine the contemporary. While it ensures the “sensible” and the “present,” it does not reduce the art to a thing that merely “makes sense” and that is “there.” The exhibitionary, this ostensivity or ostensibility, is an instance of a performance of a longer duration, a node in a network of past and prospective contexts. It is not terminus; rather it is a mere part of a playing out, of work, memories of facture. And since, it belongs to a broader conversation, a wider sympathy of revelations and comparisons, it is necessarily inclined to persist, to go on. It is “time consuming” and hence actually existing and tentative, historicized and contemporary, archival and arriving, always “born elsewhere.”

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Sun 1/29/2012 4:57 PM
Jeff Leung, Curator based in Hong Kong


On contemporary

Generally speaking, we tend to consider “institutional practices” and “individual practices” as diametrically opposed. Institutions constantly exert pressure on individuals while critiques of “institutions” by “individuals” are easily understood as a form of resistance or an expression of public opinion. Using “institutional critique” as an example, artists oftentimes use art programs and artworks to put “institutional critique” into practice, these programs and works gradually becoming a new model for institutional practices themselves. A detailed description of this dynamic can be found in Andrea Fraser’s 2005 article, “From the critique of institutions to an institution of critique.” If we observe everyday art practices, we surely can identify without any difficulty the interdependency between “institutions” and “individuals;” they are dialectically opposed and yet mutually influential.  

In terms of who should have the rights and responsibilities to define “art,” we of course recognize the significance of artists; not only are they the original creators of art, they also play a crucial role in defining art. We generally believe that through their creations artists can effectively define and redefine “art” from a first person perspective. The works of artists are a type of “individual practice.” In contrast, “the institution” of art is always considered an intangible concept that is too vast to be grasped in its entirety; it is an abstract operating system. We may imagine it through its concrete expressions such as art museums, galleries, art centers, and art academies, all of which are organizations intended to show artworks and distribute art information to the general public. However, artists, art critics, and curators must all rely on those distribution mechanisms such as themed exhibitions, topic symposia, and journal articles to publicize and communicate art to the masses. Therefore, through the process of information distribution, institutional practices play an even more crucial and influential role in defining art.

This is certainly not to say that individuals do not exist within institutions; it just means that people who work within institutions are all transparent and anonymous. While this seems to demonstrate the difficulty of an individual exerting any influence on institutional decisions, this power dynamic is not necessarily one-directional or static. For those works that emphasize creativity and innovative ideas, individuals always have a certain impact on organizations. When Herald Szemann became an independent curator, he did so as a form of resistance to the institution of art since he was disgusted by the bureaucratic and conservative aesthetics and exhibition culture associated with the “institutional practices” of art museums. Now an exhibition culture with independent curators has in and of itself become a model within the institution of art. Inviting well-known independent curators to curate their exhibitions is not only a source of pride for many art museums and art institutions, but it also generates new ideas for their institutions’ exhibition culture. As a form of “individual practices,” independent curators were gradually integrated into the institution of art and consequently are no longer considered independent; however, they did effectively change “institutional practices.” Moreover, “individual practices” does not mean that they are done with any institutional consciousness. In order to effectively amass power and allocate materials, “institutional practices” require collaboration and coordination as their fundamental modus operandi. Since individuals only have limited capabilities, they need to assemble different forces in order to achieve their goals; thus, “individual practices” also rely on small organizations, resulting in the lowest level of institutional practices. In the 1960s and 70s, artists-run art spaces and galleries emerged in the western art world as a result of artists resisting the institutional bureaucracy of museums and art galleries of that time while maintaining the mutually supportive nature of an artists collective. Unlike massive institutions requiring high operating budgets (including time and material), these organizations maintain an agile mobility similar to that of individual practices, resembling the SOHO-style corporate structure in the creative industries. These small art organizations are in effect critiques of institutional practices by individual practices and at the same time provide new directions for the current institutional practices. This issue has by and large been showcased in the Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary Art, curated by Lu Yinhua and Liu Ding, as well as in the 2002 Gwangju Biennale in Korea.

Using their resources and freedom of expression as well as developing their discourse through discussions and conferences, “institutional practices” determine the “status” of “individual practices” by first sampling various individual practices through large-scale or themed exhibitions and then compiling these samples to serve as paradigms in art history. Acknowledging others while simultaneously acknowledging one’s own relative status, this kind of mutual recognition epitomizes the interdependency of the saying “when the lips are gone, the teeth will feel the cold.”

This dialectical dynamic is not unlike the symbiotic and oppositional relationship shared by Neo, the main character of the film Matrix, with his host body. Neo’s resistance against his host body is at once a reactive and restorative act. Concomitantly, this kind of institutional restoration by individuals is an idealistic yet inevitable and recurring process. In his 2006 article, “Bureaux de change,” Alex Farquharson called attention to the phenomenon of “New Institutionalism” in the 1990s when some independent curators became the artistic directors of various institutions and brought into these institutions emerging art programs of the then popular “relational aesthetics” and participatory art, transforming an observation-based exhibition format into an occasion for audience interaction that includes workshops and on-site activities. In so doing, the new institutional practices anticipate a new round of critiques by, and integration of, individual practices before they dialectically develop in tandem.

This kind of participatory format for art creation has become mainstream; it treats artworks as events rather than objects. Through audience participation, some contemporary artists make the power of their works’ social critiques even more convincing and effective and make the contemporary art creation process even more democratic and open; it is no longer based upon elitism or an artist’s individualism. However, in her 2004 article, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Clare Bishop criticized “relational aesthetics” for being too artist-driven and ignoring the value of participant involvement; it is not the only variety of participatory art; it may not be sufficiently realizing the power of social critique with its participatory format; and it should be more appropriately explained by using the concept of “engagement.”

We can thus imagine some art programs that require social engagement turning to certain communities and calling upon the engagement of certain groups within these communities, which consequently will involve a discussion about, and presentation of, their history, daily life culture, and customs. In developed cities (such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Taipei), local governments all fashionably deploy public participatory art programs to replace monumental public sculpture when they carry out projects to transform/re-develop the image of a particular community. At the same time, in the renewal cycle of community development, artworks become a way to pass down and preserve the community culture of the past (including daily life habits and stories of its history). Individual artists, such as the ones in the Hong Kong art group “Wooferten,” transformed an exhibition space into a community gallery where nearly extinct local culture and handicrafts from this small community were displayed for the public. Through the exhibition and its workshop format, bygone arts and crafts such as ceramic photo tiles, hand-painted black and white photos, and giant plaque wreaths for festivals were recognized for their historical value and contributions. Most folk arts and crafts originated from family-style craftsmanship designed to make a living; due to their limited market demand and inability to evolve into a Ford-style production model, it was difficult for them to be absorbed into a capitalist pattern of consumption.

In vogue for nearly a decade in the Asian creative industries, the renaissance and preservation of folk arts and crafts has obviously been a declaration of resistance to industrialized production models and consumerism. In Asian cities’ increasingly popular creative markets, similar to the Arts and Crafts Movement in the West at the end of the nineteenth century, the emphasis has been placed on the relationship between personalized production and consumption in peoples’ daily lives, recognizing the value of individual labor in the process of production and consumption. These creative markets are emerging due to the popular trend of creative industries; and in the name of creative industries, they in the end have fallen into a purely consumer-driven market category. Consequently, with new consumption patterns (such as workshops, interest groups, cultural exhibitions) replacing pure commercial sales in the past, these arts and crafts skills have been transformed into cultural activities in an artistic context and as a result have achieved wide recognition and lasting staying power. Art gives traditional arts and crafts added value, allowing them to survive in a capitalist consumer market; having said that, art practices also have to face up to the challenges brought on by the capitalist art market.

In order to maintain their operations and expand their collections as well as attract a larger audience to sustain their appeal to sponsors and improve the effectiveness of their art education programs, art museums everywhere must rely on commercial sponsorship as well as the donations and support of collectors who have the power to influence the market. Therefore, corporate-sponsored classic exhibitions such as the Prada “24 Hour Museum” in Paris; Gorgio Armani: Retrospective at the New York Guggenheim Museum; and the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s Louis Vuitton -- A Passion for Creation exhibition, etc., have all been questioned as to whether they are pure support of art by the business sector, commercial promotions in the name of art, or even an excuse to endorse their products as art for the purpose of developing new lines of merchandise. Of course, art is itself both culture and a commodity. Nowadays, art expos have become one of the creative industries that attract international investment, replacing the role of biennales and triennials to promote local commerce and tourism. These previously mentioned phenomena all stimulate the rapid development of art industries and institutions in Asia; in addition, the advance of online information has prompted changes in the model of first- and second-hand art markets shaped by art museums, galleries, and auction houses. Furthermore, online auctions, artworks as stock options, as well as various art collection foundations and art money markets, all bring about changes in the circulation patterns of art collections but without improving artists’ economic rights such as artist resale rights and art programs’ minimum commission. Some private collectors no longer donate their collection to non-profit art museums; instead, they either establish their own art museums or collaborate with different art institutions and art museums to exhibit their collection all around the world, maintain their collection’s circulation, provide the general public access to their collection, as well as actively set and adjust the value of their collection. In Asia, these cases are not readily apparent, but they seemingly occur. In today’s weakened economic market and financial sectors in the West, the demand for Asian artworks has rapidly increased as objects of investment. This phenomenon is similar to the contemporary art market boom during the Western oil crisis and stock market crash of the 1980s. Like the Art Expo model, we still imitate the Western model; will we also follow the successes and failures of the West in the past, repeating the Western artistic life cycle?

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Mon 1/30/2012 10:06 AM
Iola Lenzi, Curator and critic of Southeast Asian contemporary art based in Singapore

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

In Southeast Asia the ‘institution’, as in the non-commercial state-funded gallery, or the state-run biennale, has had a checkered history in terms of its nurturing of contemporary art. The situation varies a great deal according to country. In most regional countries, institutional support (or would-be institutional support) for contemporary art is either recent, or still non-existent.  Philippines boasts by far the best developed state-funded institutional network of the region, though artists in that country may argue the system’s inadequacy on various levels. Most countries in Southeast Asia, and especially Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, provide no state institutional backing for contemporary art to speak of, so the question does not apply in these countries, where practices flourish despite any real institutional help. Thailand, and especially Singapore however are worth discussing since in these countries, the nature and depth of the provided support has some influence on developing practices.

Singapore:

Singapore Art Museum opened in January 1996 and at the time seemed, in its collecting ambitions, nascent programmes, and exhibition initiatives, to be seeking to stake a place in the Asian/Southeast Asian contemporary art world along with Fukuoka and Queensland. State initiatives in Singapore’s contemporary art world, be they galleries or the Biennale (started in 2006) have a credibility problem because of both state censorship and institutional self-censorship that anticipates possible state censorship. Regional contemporary art, when independent, is often politically, socially, and institutionally critical, and so at odds with a socially conservative government wary of dissent. 

SAM’s opening display was a big Southeast Asian show and work by many of the emerging figures on the SEA art scene was featured. At the time, Singapore’s art community, and to a certain extent the regional art community, felt optimistic about SAM’s role as a nurturing home for the contemporary in all its diverse and experimental guises. It is important to remember the date of SAM’s opening: 1996 was the year of Apinan Poshyananda’s Traditions/Tensions (September), at the time the biggest ever SEA exhibition, and the first such initiative taken beyond the Asia/Pacific region; 1996 marked the second APT, considered by many as the coming of age of SEA contemporary; retrospectively, 1996 was also the peak of the Asian Tigers period, a time of great optimism for the region when economic expansion seemed to also promise political liberalization. Within a year the Asian Financial Crisis, sparked in Thailand, would put an end to this optimistic sentiment in Singapore and Thailand. In Indonesia, the crisis accelerated political change, and the ousting of Suharto in May 1997 changed the country’s cultural scene very substantially.

In Singapore economic factors rule every facet of life and even today, when culture and art are so much discussed and seemingly key aspects of city-state public policy, their economic attributes are really the only angles considered. Thus, after the eruption of the Asian Crisis, contemporary art was put on Singapore’s policy back burner for several years. SAM seemed to lose whatever good-will and momentum it had accrued after its opening and very quickly ceased to appear to have any particular allegiance to Southeast Asian contemporary art, putting up a plethora of exhibitions unrelated to contemporary practice in either Singapore or the region that did little to enhance the young institution’s reputation.

Several serious, canon-aspiring Southeast Asian exhibitions (documented by research catalogues) were put up in the late 1990s, but these focused mainly on SEA modernism rather than contemporary art, the museum clearly preferring the safe distance of pre-1990s formalism and European derivation to the experimental and often politicized currents emerging across the region in the 1990s. From its early identification with current and contemporary regional practices, SAM quickly sought the safety of academic regional modernism.

As a result of this quick change of allegiance, audiences and Singapore’s art community were confused. By the early 21st century, many Singapore artists were expressing negative views of the museum which was considered by a growing number as irrelevant to local practices, as well as an inadequate international representative of Singapore’s recent contemporary practices, never mind those of wider Southeast Asia. Artists as well as informed cultural players in Singapore regularly cited SAM’s lack of commitment to living artists and absence of curatorial rigour. 

During this period the museum continued to collect recent local and regional art but the public was not aware of the specifics of the acquisition guidelines or policy, and purchases seem to be made fairly randomly such that important and clearly seminal pieces by regional luminaries, despite very low prices at that time, failed to make their way into the national collection. Artists in Singapore seemed to be aware of this ad-hoc approach to collecting and though some rather mercenary artists played to SAM’s increasing interest in innocuous, accessible, public-space sculpture, most, to their credit, quickly learned to ignore the institution and get on with their practices. Regionally, from the new millennium onward, SAM lost its early credibility and many non-commercial artists in Jogja, Hanoi and Bangkok seemed little interested in the institution’s activities. 

Therefore, for at least a decade after its opening, save its inaugural 1996 show, SAM did little to define contemporary art in Singapore, or the region.

Recently however, with SAM’s new directorship from 2009, and the creation of TNAGS (the National Art Gallery Singapore), SAM has been striving to re-invent itself and hence re-position itself at the centre of Southeast Asian living practice. The international and local market’s interest in Indonesian art, and this market’s surge in price, have probably had a lot to do with SAM’s renewed focus on the region. Several would-be canon-defining SEA shows have taken place since 2009, most notably a large modern and contemporary Filipino show put up in tandem with the Atheneo, an FX Harsono mid-career survey organised in collaboration with the artist’s gallery and for which early and seminal work was re-made by SAM, and the 2011 six-country SEA twenty year survey ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’ which I guest-curated in collaboration with SAM. This last, more or less installed as proposed despite its heavy political slant, with its thick catalogue, illustrates the institution’s will to participate in the making of SEA contemporary art history.

The recent Amanda Heng mid-career solo, probably the strongest to date of SAM’s series of exhibitions devoted to local contemporary artists, was a comprehensive presentation of Heng’s several decades of practice. The catalogue places her as a pivotal artist in recent Singapore art history so it would again be fair to say that SAM now aspires to be, or is effectively, canon-establishing.

Because this institutional change of course is recent, it is probably too early to determine what effect SAM’s new engagement with living artists will have on practices.

Because of SAM’s hybrid vocation as a museum championing Singapore as well as other Asian art (SEA, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian have all been showcased in the last three years) it is necessary to differentiate SAM’s influence on the practices of Singapore artists with any possible influence on those of regional/Asian artists. In Singapore SAM is uniquely positioned –along with TNAGS which appears, rather confusingly, as a rival- as the only institutional body supporting and acquiring Singapore contemporary art in any depth. However in the regional forum SAM’s position is less certain. Others beyond Singapore are coming to the fore as potential players supporting contemporary art from Southeast Asia, even if this interest tends to be nationally rather than regionally directed. Institutions in Hong Kong and China are now training their eyes on SEA art. The Fukuoka Museum of Asian Art, in the 1990s the strongest collector of regional contemporary, and still boasting the most authoritative research on regional practices despite slashed acquisition budgets, is still considered by a majority of regional artists the most prestigious institutional home for their work.

Queensland Art Museum, with its APT, is also perceived regionally to have more credibility than SAM. However, the ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’ exhibition did go some way to reminding regional artists of SAM’s original vocation and because a majority of works selected for the show were purchased by the museum, the museum’s commitment to collecting was re-asserted. However the works purchased were for the most part older pieces dating back to the 1990s so it is not clear that this bout of collecting will have influenced current artistic practices. As an institution of the state, SAM is still today perceived by some in Singapore and beyond as biased in its preference for safe, uncritical or pseudo-critical art. Ethical, independent artists are not likely influenced by this perceived bias but some local and a few regional artists keen to sell to SAM have in recent years have appeared to make work expressly for the museum’s consumption. Though generalization is impossible, many examples are characterised by slick visuals and tame, friendly socio-political content. In other words, the work harbours a critical veneer but is so conceptually poor or confused as to offend no one. Some critics in Singapore tend to glorify this art as they too can pretend to take political risks while effectively offending no one and taking no risk at all. In Singapore the glorification of ersatz political art is a national sport that would make for a very interesting academic study were it not so detrimental to the writing of a plausible art history of contemporary art in Singapore. But this is another topic that is related to Singapore’s cultural politics from the early 1990s, the city-state’s close involvement in the budding critical visual arts scene from the early 1990s onward, and control of performance art from 1995…

Thailand:

Thailand has had a flourishing non-mainstream art scene since the early 1990s and boasts one of the region’s best internationally-recognised curators, Dr. Apinan Poshyananda.

Yet to this day, Thailand has no state-funded gallery devoted to contemporary art. Thai artists started their battle for a contemporary art gallery over 15 years ago but have not yet succeeded in acquiring a dedicated public contemporary space as the coveted gallery morphed into the mixed public-private BACC. The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) was inaugurated in 2008 but this is a city institution with no budget for acquisitions and a mixed exhibitions programme somewhere between gallery and community centre. Under new directorship since summer 2011, with some committed cultural players on the board, and as the only big public-access space suitable for showing contemporary art in Bangkok, BACC must inevitably develop into an influential force for practitioners in Thailand and possibly the region. However, because of the institution’s relative youth, it would probably be premature to talk about BACC’s current role in defining contemporary art in Thailand and its place as a shaper of local practices.    

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

In the age of internet and total immersion in visual culture everywhere, it is difficult not to say ‘yes’ to this question. However a recognition of this ‘yes’ does not preclude a questioning of the sort of visual theory that some attempt to graft onto Southeast Asian contemporary practice.

Beyond contemporary practice –as in beyond ahead and beyond behind- there is Southeast Asian art. The history of Southeast Asian art though hardly written, is old. My research of art in the region has taught me not only to relate and compare practices throughout Southeast Asia, but also to relate contemporary practices with pre-existing cultural information. A good part of my research is devoted to thinking about where the contemporary in SEA comes from and my conclusion is that unlike regional modern art of many decades ago, it is shaped predominantly by local conditions. In a globalised world outside influences merge with the parochial, but SEA contemporary is not an offshoot of practices elsewhere.

If one believes in this indigenousness of the contemporary, it follows that any critical discussion of regional contemporary art should start in Asia and Southeast Asia, regional culture, history, geography, aesthetics…  and wider Asian culture thus key elements for understanding and analysing regional art and writing its art history. Western theory is not necessarily to be discarded but should be pondered critically in relation to the art it is supposed to be decoding. Because art historians and theorists of Southeast Asia tend to be trained in Western universities, they often try to apply Western theory to Asian art. And because they start with the discourse rather than the art, they tend not to actually look at the art they are reading. They therefore miss the clear mis-fit between practice and words.

Contemporary Southeast Asian art calls for analysis in the context of a broader visual culture because it is rooted to begin with in a broad visual culture; but the understanding of that culture must start with local elements, widening out to include information from global sources. 

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

The very presence here of this question raises the worrying idea that some are indeed trapped in the discursive side of the field, so forgetting to start with the practice. 

The precision provided by a definition or a single version of ‘the contemporary’ can be reassuring but in Southeast Asia, where recent art history is still being written, and by many hands, there is the danger of limiting the discourse with definitions and their exclusions. Best then to avoid ‘the contemporary’ and settle for contemporary in the much broader and ill-defined sense. In the context of Southeast Asia’s vast, plural and rich terrain of contemporary practices, to be trapped in any sort of trope is to have lost sight of the art in favour of the tools used to decode it.   

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

This is a big topic as artists around Southeast Asia mine village/folk vernaculars (mostly as opposed to court artistic expressions) and traditions in different and sophisticated ways. Traditional media, techniques, images, and forms are often used to translate complex ideas and make these accessible to wide audiences. Contrary to some pre-1990s practices, these vernaculars are not however resurrected literally and for their own sake, artists not going back to traditional languages, but rather moving forward using carefully-selected aspects of them as tools serving their ideas. Numerous essays outline the subject and rather than synthesise this important theme here over pages, I would direct the reader to comments in my amply-footnoted curatorial essay for ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’ where I contextualise the topic within the wider field.  

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

This question deserves a nuanced answer and could be developed into a long research paper. But posed as a ‘can?’ question, the quick answer is ‘yes’.

The art Industry understood as the art market:

The danger the heated art market poses to socially engaged expression is not so much to that art’s existence, since typically many engaged artists produce art for the man in the street as opposed to collectors, but rather to engaged art’s visibility and public accessibility.

In Indonesia, where the internal market for local art has been very strong for several years, socially engaged art now must compete much harder for gallery space since more commercially-viable artists tend to be favoured by art dealers keen to sell. Some established names associated with engaged practices still get shown, but it seems more difficult for younger, experimental social artists to find representation.

The same phenomenon occurred in late 1990s Hanoi when the commercial art market there exploded. Suddenly the avant-garde, socially-inclined artists who had had space to grow and show – albeit facing the challenge of censorship –, had to compete for viewership with artists whose works were not socially-challenging but commercial and decorative, so attractive to gallery-owners. As a result, some idealistic avant-garde Hanoi artists of the 1990s dropped out of the scene and stopped producing. Others changed their practices to make it more sellable. Others still changed their practices so drastically as to draw a very clear distinction between their own experimental and engaged expression on one hand, and the commercial art world on the other. 

In the case of late 1990s Hanoi, the rapid and indiscriminate expansion of the market had a clear negative impact on developing non-mainstream practices and because there existed no strong institution championing engaged or non-commercial art, this nefarious impact was not tempered in any way.     

The Institution:

The emergence of institutions can also affect the visibility or accessibility of socially-engaged practices. Here I understand ‘Institution’ as a state-funded or accountable non-profit venue rather than a commercial one, though in some places in SEA, notably Indonesia, dealers set up non-profit “spaces” or “foundations” that serve to boost the dealer’s personal collection which is often one and the same as his commercial stable.

Effects vary around the region – few countries in Southeast Asia today boast big contemporary art institutions – but it is true I believe that those few institutions that have come to the fore in the last decade or so aspire to canon-making roles. As a result, through their significant advertising budgets and programmes, they influence public perception about what sort of art is art historical. The issue with this is that exhibitions, particularly of critically-untested art, are put up with thin or non-existent curatorial justification. In other words, the essays – if any – published by the curatorium in the accompanying catalogue, often fail to tell audiences WHY the art on show is important and deserves space in the publicly-funded institution. This favoring of some art and artists should not necessarily influence the production of artists excluded from the list of institutional protégés. Yet since the institutions tend to influence collectors, and so commercial gallery-owners, artists outside the institutional loop may tend to adapt their practice to something closer to the ‘approved’ institutional genre. This of course is true everywhere, not only in Southeast Asia. But the dearth of institutional support and multiple critical voices in the region is more likely to create a monolithic channel of ‘accepted’ art that is difficult to counter. Institutions in Southeast Asia being supported by governments that are socially conservative, one can imagine that on the whole, institutions will tend to side-line practices that are experimental, political, sexual, etc…

The Singapore Biennale 2011 (SB3), remembered for its censorship incident as well, paradoxically, as for its uniformity, illustrates this point, while similar censorship kerfuffles have marred public exhibitions in Indonesia in the last several years.

Some institutions do push boundaries however and so as exceptions that prove the rule, may provide encouragement to artists making art outside the mainstream. In Singapore the Substation has off and on over the years been a forum for alternative practices. The same is generally true of Singapore’s Esplanade, as well, more recently, and in fits and starts, as Singapore Art Museum. In Bangkok, the university art galleries can also play a role in showing alternative art, and the Jogja Biennale has cast itself too as an institution prepared to champion the non-mainstream and socially-engaged, which are often the same in SEA. 

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Mon 1/30/2012 7:54 AM
Joan Kee, Assistant Professor of the department of History of Art at University of Michigan


Moves in the Field

The recent push to define the “contemporary” seems suspiciously akin to what was previously a similar rush to discuss the “global.” Most of the time, the “contemporary” is best regarded as a gauge indicating different assumptions. The initial questions for this enquête, for instance, reveal an understanding of contemporary art deeply inflected by certain modernist, and to some cases, highly Eurocentric, ideas, including an unwavering faith in the sanctity of individual will, as well as on an equally unquestioned belief in the validity of segregating “contemporary” art (implicitly equated with the “new”) from artworks identified as “folk” or “traditional.”

If we must think about the “contemporary,” however, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the degree to which the study of contemporary Asian art constantly forces a reconsideration of assumptions; even the very phrase “contemporary art” can hardly be taken for granted.  There is a surfeit of terms, all of which are deeply embedded in highly specific historical trajectories. The words used to produce the phrase “contemporary art” could be the same, but meanings vary considerably as do their approaches to time. Gendai bijutsu, for example, is not the same as dangdai yishu, nor does it readily translate into hyŏndae misul. And gendai bijutsu as it was invoked in 1965 is not the same as gendai bijutsu in 1980. Then there are other definitions, like sidae ŭi yesul, literally meaning “art of our time” and used in 1930s Korea to refer to the aspirations of those seeking to make work that was relevant to the specifics of a given time and place. Others use Romanized versions of the phrase “contemporary art,” a move suggesting that contemporary art itself as a Western phenomenon, or at least one heavily inflected by Western values. The plurality of definitions forces you to think about contemporary art as a heuristic impossibility because of its very imperviousness to essentialist thinking. You can’t think of a contained, standalone contemporary art, in large part because of these multiple definitions.

Moreover, “contemporary art” becomes an impossible idea if you admit its contingent nature. So much of the discussion is really about trying to make sense of what has come before, or crudely put, “the past.” But how do you do this when there is still so much basic empirical work to be done, even in relatively affluent countries with a critical mass of interest in art? Since the early 1980s, South Korea, for example, has had an extremely robust artistic infrastructure with plenty of art schools, students, museums, galleries, and publications, not to mention a government eager to promote Korean culture overseas. And there are many scholars who work to build upon this. Yet there is still a good deal of basic historical information that needs to be done -- birth dates and exhibition venues are missing or erroneously noted, artwork dimensions nowhere to be found, photographs improperly cropped and whole bodies of work completely written out of the historical record. Part of this absence of a written history is the result of an incentive system that offers very few tangible or intangible rewards to art historians and curators. But the work is nonetheless crucial, for without it, can one really think about the contemporary at all? If we’re going to think about the “contemporary” as a history of contemporary art, then we’ll have to do some empirical digging first.

The real concern, however, is that the idea of a viable contemporary art has to also be accompanied by some sense of criteria. What kinds of works are we willing to include in our histories of contemporary art? This is an especially pressing issue in many parts of the world, where the “gatekeeper” syndrome, in which a handful of commentators, particularly those able to speak, read, and write major European languages control, or mediate access to the art of a particular region, is especially strong. It seems churlish to fault certain parts of the world for this syndrome, particularly in those places where artworks are made and discussed at considerable risk to their creators’/discussants’ personal and professional well-being. Yet it is also risky not to think about the subsequent effects of this syndrome, particularly when an artwork’s market value is increasingly becoming the primary standard by which art is valued. In many parts of Asia, there is an almost insurmountable disparity between the power of the market and that of other institutions, including, but not limited to, the museum, the university, and even the state. Indeed, you wonder whether Ai Weiwei’s troubles with the Chinese state was actually a symptom of this disparity and the state’s attempts to reclaim some of the authority now wielded by a multinational market in which value is determined largely by consumer demand and very little by specialists in a given field. The one exception might be state-run funding bodies in affluent countries, including the ADC in Hong Kong, the NAC in Singapore, Arts Council Korea, or the Japan Foundation; these institutions have had some success in shaping what is considered “contemporary Asian art” by sponsoring exhibitions, artist projects, residencies, and the like.

In such a climate, we can’t afford to mistake relativism for genuine tolerance, nor simply include all works without acknowledging the standards upon which such inclusion occurs. Logically, it is inconsistent to say that there is no basis upon which to consider something “good” or “bad,” yet write about, display, or buy some works and not others. It is even more inconsistent to say there are no standards, no criteria for judgment, for then you also suggest, by extension, that that any illiberal or absurd position is likewise acceptable. Granted, it makes no sense to ask whether something is absolutely good; one discusses something as good in relation to something else. Yet there is also a need to clearly distinguish between the necessity of exercising caution when passing judgment and the wholesale embrace of an attitude tantamount to moral relativism. Likewise, there is a need to consider the practice of inclusion: although most people will strongly agree that the art world needs to be more inclusive/expansive, it does not also hold that most people will agree on what to include. Can there ever be such a thing as bad inclusion? I think so, especially when it takes place when those entrusted with the power of inclusion are not made to account for their choices. We all recognize the complexity of contemporary art, but the real challenge is actually having to confront it.

Having said this, the notion of the contemporary, or rather of being contemporary (“contemporaneity”) can be very useful in rethinking the period commonly designated as the modern. Certainly it forces a different reading of time that compels a simultaneous acknowledgement of the synchronic and diachronic. This kind of reading is productive in rethinking artworks made in colonized areas, where it can be intensely difficult to think about artworks outside rubrics like “innovation,” “advancement,” and “the new,” rubrics that tend to position the artwork in a zero-sum battle between progress and obsolescence, or the condition of being avant-garde versus something that’s nostalgic.

Perhaps most significant about the “contemporary” is the extent to which so many commentators are regarding it as an opportunity to redress the ills of past attempts at historicization, hence the emphasis on keeping things open. It might thus be most useful as a symptom of what we hope to get out of art, or what we hope it will do. For this reason, it would be interesting to consider the exclusionary nature of contemporary art. Although most discussions of contemporary art stress its vastness, uncertainty, and ambiguity, usually in a positive way, there are whole areas that don’t get discussed, even now when anything supposedly goes: art intended to function as propaganda for an authoritarian regime, ink painting (other than as a source of “tradition”), copies, forgeries, and religious art, to name a few examples. When we talk about “contemporary art,” we’re really talking about a very tiny fraction of the world’s artistic production. What are we to make of this when “contemporary art” is increasingly periodized on account of its expansiveness and inclusiveness?

One of the interesting paradoxes of contemporary art is that although there is no consensus on what it actually means, or on how to teach or curate it, there is nevertheless strong agreement of its existence as a field. In addition, the field loosely recognized as “contemporary Asian art” has great potential to shape the parameters of contemporary art in general. But the future of these contemporary art fields will depend on what we claim as its domain of inquiry, that is, on the questions we ask of contemporary art and how we purport to answer them. In short, the field depends on the moves we undertake on its behalf, now more than ever before.

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Tue 1/31/2012 12:27 AM
Lee Weng Choy, Critic based in Singapore

Art History or Visual Culture: Diversity and Disparity

The October questionnaire on the contemporary posited that “The category of ‘contemporary art’ is not a new one. What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment…. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, ‘contemporary art’ has become an institutional object in its own right: in the academic world there are professorships and programmes, and in the museum world departments and institutions, all devoted to the subject …”. 

The over thirty respondents included the likes of Alexander Alberro, James Elkins, Okwui Enwezor, Grant Kester, Miwon Kwon, Pamela Lee and Terry Smith. In a footnote, the October editors said they approached about seventy art critics, historians and curators. Here’s the shocker: they only approached persons based in Europe and the US, because they felt that the questions, as formulated, were ‘specific to these regions’. Seriously? Most respondents touched on the global nature of contemporary art. 

Here’s the irony: I’d wager that if you had included some Australian and New Zealand-based respondents, and while we’re at it, why not include some from Asia, South America, and Africa, well, then, my bet is that the kinds of responses you would get would be different from the existing 30-plus commentaries that October actually compiled, but they wouldn’t be that different — they would be perfectly recognisable. You wouldn’t have to publish separate volumes; the new compilation would be bigger, with more diversity, but it would still make sense as a single collection. So the claim “specific to these regions” seems a lame alibi, either belying a laziness or lack of curiosity — what’s the worse of the two, I couldn’t say.

With the establishment of “contemporary art” as an institutional object, one has to negotiate the question of the global, even when one wants to insist on regional perspectives. So, given this global frame, how does one begin to answer the question of whether or not we should continue to teach and study art history as a discipline in itself, or merge it with that larger field called “visual culture”? 

There is, of course, a history, or rather, a number of histories of the emergence of visual culture as an institutional field. One could also look at specific institutions as case studies: for instance, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was recently a visiting lecturer, has both an “art history” department and a department of “visual and critical studies”. Both approaches are beyond the scope of my remarks here. Rather, I’d like to proffer a hypothesis about how art history as a discipline differs from visual culture as a field.

Contemporary art may be characterised by a great plurality, but what also frames today’s art is what brings it together. One of the underlying premises of contemporary art is that one can curate art from any and everywhere, and exhibit it all together. This is what platforms like biennales do — hopefully with the aim of not just displaying this diversity, but prompting the different works to speak to each other. It makes sense to speak of art as a specific field, even if one can’t draw clear boundaries around it. Even if we do not have a unified, coherent world art history, what I’m arguing for is commensurability within this global pluralism, because our various multiple regional and local histories intersect or can intersect — and it’s platforms and institutions like biennales, art schools and universities which encourage as well as manage these interconnections. 

“Visual Culture” may be something else. Perhaps it doesn’t yet designate a category so much as a whole universe of phenomena. Within “contemporary art” we have a great diversity. But within “visual culture” we may have great disparities. I suppose one way of differentiating the two terms is that with “diversity” there is commensurability, but with “disparity” there isn’t — not yet, at any rate. Do we have platforms and institutions that bring together the whole gamut of visual culture? What would a biennale of video games, contemporary art, popular tv shows, design, fashion, movies, magazines, comics, the list goes on and on — what kind of exhibition would that be? What would a university department that studied every visible cultural form be like? 

Of course, there already are departments of visual culture, but they don’t, as far as I know, attempt to encompass all of visual culture, rather, they make provisional expansions and conjunctions. I am not arguing that “visual culture” as a field of study is not legitimate or valuable. I’m arguing that “art history” is something else — it has its faults, it’s historically been far too conservative an enterprise — but it shouldn’t be subsumed by that larger field of enquiry. 

If I fault October for confining a questionnaire on contemporary art to a region (like Europe and the US), I wouldn’t fault the journal for confining a questionnaire to the subject of “art”, rather than expanding it to include “visual culture”. 

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Tue 1/31/2012 1:31 PM
Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University


The Asia Art Archive Questionnaire is a timely example of the leadership role Asian scholars and institutions, including the Asia Art Archive, are playing in contemporary art debates. In the last two decades of dynamic change in the art world in Asia, where fluidity and mutability are the order of the day, the region has developed its own forums for art and created new cultural networks for the region and beyond.

‘Are we trapped in a trope of “the Contemporary”?’

Yes perhaps but inevitably so because, as historians have long accepted, history, including art history, can only be written from the perspective of the present, as Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce suggested by his oft quoted aphorism ‘All history is contemporary history’. (1)

Contemporary art both reflects and informs contemporary society. Art historian Donald Preziosi has noted art does not exist ‘as a second reality alongside the world in which we live day today’. It is, in his words, ‘rather … one of the powerful social instruments for the creation and maintenance of the world in which we live’. (2)

A focus on the contemporary is perhaps also inevitable in Asia given the extraordinary changes, political, economic and social that people in the Asian region have confronted in the last 60 years as well as the more recent geopolitical and economic alterations in the balance of global power. Many experts suggest that this will see the impending close of more than two centuries of global domination by first Europe, then the United States. Yet this phenomenon, so challenging to many in the ‘West’, is described by Singaporean scholar Kishore Mahbubani perceptively as simply a case of ‘the world returning to the historical norm of the place of Asian societies’ in the global hierarchy. (3)

What we are also witnessing today is not only geopolitical or economic resurgence in Asia but an Asian contemporary art drawing on cultures of thousands of years, the influence of which will inevitably become more and more evident this century. The contemporary context for that art is challenging. Geeta Kapur, one of the pre-eminent writers on art in the region, has described the context for many Indian (and by extension many Asian) artists, stating that art at the cutting edge of ‘community, nation, market…will differ from Western neo-avant-gardes in that it has as its referents, a civil society in huge ferment, a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy and a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony’. (4) Kapur also raises in this essay the issue of Asian diasporas. We need to consider when discussing contemporary art that many artists today are global travelers.

At the 2007 Asian Art Museum Directors Meeting in Singapore, Okwui Enwezor referred to the important Bellagio conference of 1997 in Italy, which I also attended, and which discussed major recurring international exhibitions of contemporary art. This conference was a significant international event but there were few Asian representatives, although Apinan Poshyananda was a key speaker. That small number of Asian representatives would be an impossibility today because Asian art is now informing so many debates about art in our contemporary world. The conference took place in the context of the 1997 Documenta X exhibition, an intellectually fascinating exhibition but one in which, as a Latin American colleague pointed out, there were only a handful of Latin American, African and Asian artists included. That situation of course has changed dramatically with artists from these regions seen more and more in the many world biennales as in Enwezor’s own Documenta in 2002.

In 1993 distinguished Asian historian Wang Gungwu noted that: ‘The modern world has made people aware of similarities and differences among themselves to an extent never dreamed of in the past. Being thus more aware, people can never be the same again’ (5). Globalization has generated debates about differences, similarities, parallel histories, art histories and art practices that demand multifaceted and varied responses.

Miwon Kwon in the Foster Questionnaire notes that: ‘Contemporary art history… marks a temporal bracketing and a spatial encompassing, a site of a deep tension between very different formations of knowledge and traditions, thus a challenging pressure point for the field of art history in general. For instance, what is the status of contemporary Chinese art history?... How closely should it be linked to Chinese art, cultural, or political history? How coordinated should it be with Western art history or aesthetic discourse? Is contemporary Chinese art history a subfield of contemporary art history? Or are they comparable categories, with the presumption that the unnamed territory of contemporary art history is Western-American?...’ (6)

These are all good questions. They are questions that need to be answered in the twenty-first century by scholars, theorists, curators and artists and necessitate more calibrated and infinitely nuanced discourses about multiple and changing art histories. It is as many scholars have noted not a simple case of centres and peripheries, local and/or global, and it is already clear that the landscape of contemporary art can no longer be viewed only in terms of a EuroAmericentric paradigm or the structures of Western art history. But these and similar questions have been and are being discussed in numerous forums in Asia - two examples being the many conferences over the last two decades of the Japan Foundation and the recent conferences around the Third and Fourth Guangzhou Triennales.

In the process of making sense of this new twenty-first century landscape of art Asian scholars and artists are playing and must play a significant role. Here context is critical. Asia is no monolithic entity. Different countries of the region have their own histories of art and of contemporary artistic creation and traditional art, including folk practices, and contemporary art still exist side by side, as Jim Supangkat has pointed out for Indonesia. While much debate is focussed on contemporary art it has long been realised that there is a need to link the modern art history of the region to contemporary discussions. Jim Supangkat, Redza Piyadasa, TK Sabapathy, John Clark, Akira Tatehata, Apinan Poshyananda and Patrick Flores, among others, have been in the forefront in exploring these legacies of the modern and more recent past. (7)

Asian artists have also responded to the challenges required by new perspectives of history. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by Chang Tsong-Zung’s brilliant project , the name by which India was known in China from the time Buddhism came to China. The title ‘signals the invitation to encounter locations and histories across old and new borders…For China today, after a century of revolutions, it is critical to remind ourselves that in our imagination of the world there is not just the West, but also the West Heavens’. (8) Indian and Chinese artists worked together in the exhibition, curated as part of the project by Chaitanya Sambrani, to explore links between the emerging superpowers. These were evoked impressively by Gulammohammed Sheikh in his imposing installation City: Memories, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts: Return of Hiuen Tsang (Xuangzang), mapping the historical onto the contemporary through the tumultuous reality of modern India.

What is the role of the institution?

Universities and museums as well as institutions such as the Asia Art Archive play a vital role in these debates. We should accept that institutions, including museums, can be and are radical institutions in terms of social change and that exhibition models can encapsulate radical experimentation. The many curators who came together on the Asia-Pacific Triennial exhibitions I worked on for a decade saw it as a laboratory where ideas and the work of living artists could be debated in ways that were inclusive of the artists’ voices.

Institutions are vitally significant, one hopes, in combatting the rampant consumerism and market-driven forces affecting the art world globally today. But institutions are complemented by the many artist initiatives, outside museums or large institutions, that are also sites of experiment and creativity. Examples include Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City set up in 2007 by artists including Dinh Q Lȇ for the benefit of Vietnamese artists whose work had been overlooked by political and commercial systems. One of the oldest such projects is Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, founded in 1988 by artists Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo. Cemeti has always been concerned with issues affecting its local community, like the natural disasters of the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake, when the artists helped set up relief facilities and ran workshops for children. And another recent example in Japan is that in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami there are a multitude of art projects springing up in affected areas to assist communities to deal with the trauma of those events.

Many of these projects are away from the great cities that increasingly are coming to characterize twenty-first century Asia. However, there are equally many artists who have looked at the urban city as a site for change. The Aar Paar project for example addressed the tensions between India and Pakistan and took place in Mumbai and Karachi in 2002. Ten artists from each city developed art projects by email which were then inserted in public spaces in each city, attempting to speak to ordinary people across societies deeply divided on historical, religious and political lines and where the threat of war is an abiding reality.

Focusing on the present helps us perhaps to believe we can put terrible events of the past behind us. As Jacques Derrida wrote of the twentieth century: ‘No degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before in absolute figures have so many men, women, and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on earth’. (9) Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto is one artist who has confronted these realities through his Count Project to count the victims of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and to reveal hidden histories, including the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 in which Christanto’s father was one of the hundreds of thousands of victims.

But Christanto’s project is not confined to Indonesia – he is concerned with violence across the world. Terry Smith in arguing that contemporary art ‘is no longer one kind of art’ yet ‘perhaps for the first time in history’ is ‘truly an art of the world’ goes on to define three distinctive currents in contemporary art. ‘The second’ of these currents he suggests, ‘has arisen from movements toward political and economic independence that occurred in former colonies and on the edges of Europe, and is thus shaped above all by clashing ideologies and experiences. The result is that artists prioritize both local and global issues as the urgent content of their work’. (10)

Many artists in Asia today address the connections between art and social change through specific local, regional and sometimes global perspectives. They also address contested ground in relation to history, tradition, religion, rapid economic, social and political change and the threat of violence and even war in the region and beyond. As I have argued elsewhere, in their passionate commitment to social justice many contemporary Asian artists have explored ideas critical to all our definitions of humanity.


(1) The discipline of history has accepted that ‘contemporary history’ exists as a legitimate and necessary field of enquiry, something many international scholars of art history have resisted, preferring to see contemporary art as the domain of art criticism as suggested by some scholars answering the Foster Questionnaire.
(2) Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History, Meditations on a coy science, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 49.
(3) Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere, The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. Public Affairs New York, 2008, p.52.
(4) Geeta Kapur, ‘Dismantled Norms: Apropos other Avantgardes’ in Caroline Turner (ed.), Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, Pandanus Books, 2005, pp.46-100. This quotation p.97.
(5) Wang Gungwu ‘Foreword’ in Caroline Turner (ed.), Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific, University of Queensland Press,1993, p.vii.
(6) Miwon Kwon, OCTOBER 130, fall 2009, pp. 3–124. This quotation p.13.
(7) Okwui Enwezor has pointed as an example of this to Patrick Flores’ groundbreaking project Turns in Tropics: Artist-Curator, developed for the 7th Gwangju Biennial which Enwezor curated. Enwezor, OCTOBER 130, fall 2009, pp.33-40.
(8) Chang Tsong-Zung Exhibition booklet Introduction, unpaginated and website http://westheavens.net/en/. (2010) (accessed 18 January 2011).
(9) Jacques Derrida, Spectres for Marx. London, Routledge, 1994, p.85.
(10) Terry Smith ‘Contemporary Art in Transition: From Late Modern Art to Now’ http://www.globalartmuseum.de/site/guest_author/298] 2010 (accessed 12 March 2011)

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Wed 2/1/2012 9:12 PM
Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, Faculty Member at the Department of Art Studies of University of the Philippines


Roots and Routes

One of my starkest realizations about just how off-track popular vs academic thinking is regarding contemporary art came during a fairly recent visit to Manila by a British curator on an explo trip. It had been a quick pass through the city for her as most of these visits tend to be, but it had seemed she had been politely letting slide a quirk she’d noted even during lackadaisical exchanges she’d been in. Gingerly posing the question about how modernism was old hat but apparently still casually used interchangeably as a stand-in for “contemporary” in conversations she had had with artists and curators thereabouts, I attempted to assuage her that it really was much less about being ignorant of the debates about postmodernism and the posed temporality of contemporaneity, as it was about the existence of parallel universes and passionate assertions of altermodernities in these parts.

So what’s this got to do with the Asia Art Archive’s work and its articulated mission of stewarding memories of the inevitably turning past tense of this region’s contemporary art? Of course AAA brought this ‘soul-searching’ upon itself by invoking Hal Foster and his Questionnaire on the Contemporary in the vaunted 2009 issue of October. But then one too would logically ask, what does AAA, sited as it is in one of the longer-standing capitalist cores of Asia, have to with October and its hardly subtle political affinities? In a way this brings me to the incongruences cited by my British acquaintance literally passing through a locus of contending laggard semi-feudalist, post-colonial, arguably post-Fordist streams of living in the Philippines of this moment.

As AAA inwardly checks itself against suggested categories of the individual and institution, it does so too summoning the fraught relationships between nowness and the global/local. As variably passionate claims and counterclaims get traded back and forth about what it is that constitutes our present—much of the debate has been about how the self has increasingly been given centerstage, how the seduction of subjectivities remain fascinating to scholars, and in some accounts, so much so that the thus less nuanced context-making of time and space have been seen to fade into the far far background.

Needless to say this triumphalism over microstories and the bio/personal is not shared across the board. The voices in October, however limited as the spread was perceived, still provided a compelling mix of a read. There was for instance, Okwui Enwezor’s (after Chakrabarty’s) elaboration on heterotemporality, which argued against Foster’s conjured free flight while still suggesting a patently weak sense of fidelity to both territory and larger causes beyond the self, all this emanating from the contemporary artworld’s variably dispersed or multi-nodal sites of proffered autonomy and influence and thus tending toward a knowledge domain strongly characterized by gradiations of difference rather than vapid generalizations. Terry Smith points too to this asynchronicity and strong sense of contingency. Thus, we could extend the logic perhaps and rather than look at contemporaneity as a trap, it may merely be taken as a state of affairs that needs minding rather than an ultimate surrendering to. As AAA, positioned as the archive that it is, continues to attempt to modestly do a ‘memory map’ of a region, the contours of which are continually being debated, it might then consider being more given to flex amongst the sites that it desires to have its presence felt and build creatively from the variably successful work it has been allowed and enabled to do in states and non-state sites peopled by inequitably empowered artworld agents, weak cultural institutions, and stalled as well as fledgling capacity-building projects that impinge on domains ranging across art education to the more market-conflicted reaches of discourse production.

I suppose my proposition here is to seek and occupy some productive space in which AAA might critically regard the contemporary. Grant Kester’s response to Foster’s taunt cited how the present state of affairs effectively constitutes artists themselves as countervailing authorities to the traditional gatekeeping art historian and critic. And I believe that suggests a place where AAA might be useful to those keen on tapping into its resources in working through their art and the discourse that gets built around it. My sense is that artists, and most anyone trying to keep in pace with the contemporary artworld would hanker after a radar or at least some respite from the rabid nowness that the field is associated with. And that is precisely, in my mind, where AAA possibly fits. At the risk of giving myself over to some foolhardy romanticism, perhaps this is my pitch for a dreamt-of rooted stream of contemporaneity as a foil to Foster’s formulation of contemporary practice as a non-orbit. Joshua Shannon, in the same 2009 October issue suggests that this juncture provides a window for “a scholarship of specifics” which I would almost immediately associate with how AAA has literally made space for personal archives as hybrids of physical and digital traces. Further, T.J. Demos cites Appadurai’s notion of “imaginary landscapes” amidst uneven geographies manifested in the socio-political and cultural spheres. Johanna Burton (also in the same volume) tangentially suggests how debates surrounding the study of visual culture (possibly related to Kelly Baum’s notion of a dis-identification with the discipline of art” are tied into the sprawl of practices that have at one time or the other come under the problematic category, contemporary. Still in October, Pamela Lee writes of the attendant problems in relation to the “imagined historicity” of the contemporary. As someone recently subjected to having to sift through personal archives and fairly recent media accounts, digitized and otherwise, I feel for this latter point quite strongly. So much so that I would say that perhaps the charge to AAA in this regard is for it to actively participate in the re-imagining of history amidst its unfolding, historicizing the otherwise inherently intractable imagination in full recognition of the fraught nature of this project. I’m wont to say that it’s a treacherous route to take but one that can not be opted out of.

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Wed 2/1/2012 2:04 AM
David Teh, Researcher, curator and critic specializing in contemporary art of South East Asia


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

One of the distinctive features of Asian contemporary art is that these two questions cannot be answered in any regionally coherent way. (I'm going to talk about a kind of layman's Asia, not the Art AsiaPacific (or Asia Pacific Triennial) Asia that now encompasses the Middle East, has vaulted the Urals and will soon take Kreuzberg.) As I see it, there are at least three distinctive worlds in which art institutions exert differing levels of gravity. One is specific to modern developed nations a certain way down the path to a post-industrial economy (led by Japan, and in its wake, Korea, Taiwan, perhaps Singapore). Second, we have the post-colonial developing world where institutions have been founded (or re-tooled) as part of modern nation-building programs (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia...). And then, the yet to be institutionalised art-worlds of the socialist or post-socialist laggards (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar...) where stuff we find interesting and 'contemporary' seldom if ever issues from institutions. The two big powerhouses, China and India, probably contain institutions (and lacks) we could associate with all three of these categories, as befits their vast scales and diversity and internally uneven states of development.

The three types of setting come with different models of funding, bureaucracy, etc, differing levels of market development and openness, and not surprisingly, generate distinct modes of exhibition and collection. Some places have picked up the aesthetics and the rhetoric of 'the contemporary'; some have not. I wouldn't want to make broad geographical statements about this - for now, these questions are best answered case by case, artist by artist, country by country. But I think it's worth noting that where the aesthetic discourse of contemporaneity (not necessarily implying the use of the term itself) has emerged, it hasn't always been by the same means. There is something we might call contemporaneity from below, whereby artists have devised aesthetic strategies for mediating between - and sometimes transcending - their local traditions and modernisms, and what they've seen abroad; and this has brought them into dialogue, and into circulation, with wider international currents. 'The contemporary' has been the global, open-source discourse for lassoing many of these positions. There is also something like a contemporaneity from above, whereby institutions (including governments and the market) have picked up on this convergence and put themselves forward as champions and patrons of a local/regional 'contemporary art'. (In either case, this discourse of the contemporary is inextricable from a certain upswing in transnational flows of bodies and ideas.) In some places, both vectors are visible; but they don't necessarily always meet in the middle.

Looking at the Thai case, which I know more intimately, I’d say it's squarely in the 2nd (or 'developing') category, notwithstanding the fact that Thailand wasn't formally colonised. The word 'contemporary' (and its Thai cognate, ruam samai) has been around almost as long as the notion of 'modern' art itself; the two terms were almost synonymous within the official discourse of academic art in the mid-20th century. Some of today's 'contemporary' artists are still observant of this claim exerted by institutions over the present. Some are decidedly not. Their claim to the contemporary is often implicit, and consists in techniques, styles and attitudes that are more post-modern with less hinging upon the national. This doesn't mean their work is less 'Thai', simply that they are careful to avoid the aestheticisation and reification of Thainess, in which several generations of artist have already specialised.

Within Bangkok's elite Silpakorn University, one can discern an institutional notion of the contemporary, though the Silpakorn mafia hardly seeks to be definitive about it. As elsewhere in the Thai bureaucracy, in order to survive there, the concept needs to be adapted to fit into with a worldview that's hierarchical, (at least outwardly) monarchist, patriarchal, and largely ignorant of the international industrial context beyond its own narrow horizons. As much as possible, such an institution seeks to maintain its station atop the institutional pyramid, but for artists working outside of it- and even some within - competing ideas of contemporaneity are bound to creep in. For the purposes of increasingly mobile young artists in the 1990s, institutions played a minimal role in defining what was contemporary. Independent initiatives were far more influential. Since the early 2000s, though, the state has been reappropriating the terrain of the contemporary - most obviously through the institution of an Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (since 2003) - and individuals have had to tread carefully, usually around institutions rather than through them, in figuring a contemporaneity that's legible and inoffensive to both local and international audiences. Charisma and kudos accrued in one sphere may be parlayed into the other in lucrative ways. Thailand's lack of market infrastructure means that the threshold tends to be guarded by a few power-brokers with currency in both international, and national-institutional spheres. Negotiating smooth passage between these two barely overlapping spheres distinguishes the most successful contemporary artists. But what qualifies their contemporaneity abroad is often quite different from what qualifies it at home.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

My answer to the first bit is a resounding Yes. It does and it must. To ghetto-ise 'fine art' or 'contemporary art' in the region, to pretend it's not embedded in, and richly informed by, a host of other less exclusive cultural fields, would be to repeat the dumbest mistake of art history's history. But this makes the second bit tricky, because in my opinion Yes, the discursive activity branding itself as 'visual culture' studies is in some cases quite detrimental to the development of historical knowledge and critical discourse on art.

Genuinely 'critical' contemporary art criticism has long been a threatened species, worldwide really, and never had much of a foothold in Asia; its prospects are dim. But art history is a beast that can serve many masters (market, academe, institutions and states). The problem with the 'visual culture' rubric is that it is often a workaround or short-cut that relegates the historical study of the visual to the margins. Cultural context comes at the expense of formal history, expansive referencing at the expense of focused analysis. This is less a criticism of 'visual culture' itself as an intellectual framework and more a criticism of how it has been deployed in the reorganisation of higher education in the humanities. If 'the visual' has a history, then surely art history must be central, rather than incidental, to that pursuit.

For any decent humanities faculty, it's easy enough to cobble together an undergraduate module or minor programme in visual culture - its appeal to students is obvious (I’ve just done this in Singapore and the module was over-subscribed the very first time it was offered).

Foreign and mature-aged students will queue up, cash in hand, for an MA. It’s fairly cheap to provide; (semi-) qualified staff are plentiful on the global academic labour market; synergies may be found with other divisions in the university. This sort of opportunistic construction is hardly surprising and goes with the neo-liberal territory. In some places it's probably better than nothing. But it's telling that the drawcards that many such programmes boast are the new-age rockstar 'independent curators' (often nomadic or based elsewhere) and not, by and large, serious critics or historians. They pump out plenty of anecdotal books about themselves and their jetsetting exploits but everybody knows that proper research, research with historical purchase, is a slow business more suited to the sedentary life. The Ivy League people will tell you there's a big difference between their 'visual studies' degrees and the new vogue for 'curatorial' and arts management MAs. They’re probably right. But in this part of the world, the lines are blurred. And 'visual culture' is often the substitute discourse - art history lite - that papers over the cracks in a one-year crash course. In my experience, graduates of these sorts of programmes (unless they had prior art historical training) are not well equipped for critical art historical or curatorial research.

If Asia ends up with these kinds of programmes, without art historical ones, it will be to the great detriment of our contemporary artists and our societies. We should wake up to the fact that contemporary art is, at the end of the day, a fiduciary business, and that scholarship is a central pillar propping up its currency. Good artists know this. Good institutions know this. Good collectors know this. In a game of trust, there is simply no substitute for a methodical and relatively disinterested scholarship. The alternative - as we know only too well - is speculation, which isn't healthy for the artists or the investors.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

I’ll answer these together. Firstly, no, we are not trapped in a trope of the contemporary. In many places something calling itself 'contemporary art' is still struggling to constitute and assert itself as a category of aesthetic production. In many parts of this region, it's simply invisible. But it may be true that international art discourse is trapped. At the Euro-American centre, renewed focus on the matter of contemporaneity seems largely a result of the expiry of the relational (I’m not just referring to [Nicolas] Bourriaud, but to a host of approaches to art and art-making of which 'relational aesthetics' describes one small but conspicuous clump) as a candidate for what would follow the postmodern - a "presumptive replacement" for the latter, as Joan Kee and Patrick Flores recently put it. The idea that the relational might shunt us out of the postmodern is just as wishful as the idea that talking about contemporaneity will somehow get us beyond the problematics of relativism, networks and globalisation.

In any case, since you've characterised 'the contemporary' as a kind of trap, I think it helps to specify a subject. It’s clear that the art historian needs it, especially as art history's pendulum swings back towards its linear Unconscious. (The Hegelians had been quiet for years, but the contemporary promise of a 'world art history' has drawn even them out of the closet.) Judging from the growing discourse of the contemporary, it's clear also that the theorists and curators need it. But do artists need it? This is perhaps the more pressing question, and it's often overlooked. I can't answer it satisfactorily, except to say that I don't know many artists in Southeast Asia who care too much about the term, nor strive to identify themselves with it.

In western art history, we can identify a certain contemporaneity avant la lettre - it's constitutive of the modern itself. Turner had it, this instantaneity that seems so proper to its age and yet, like any vanguard, was also somehow untimely. If the sense of contemporaneity inherited by contemporary art discourse (via Benjamin, Baudelaire, et al.) is to have any resonance for artists in Southeast Asia, I think it will be important to push beyond this dialectic of the un/timely. Linear time needn't necessarily be replaced, but it must be complicated by, entwined with and filtered through the cyclical, the reversible, and the reiterative. Here in Southeast Asia, the links between past, present and future are not just made of different stuff - language being the most obvious quotidian proof of this - but you can also do different things with them. Time-travel, remembrance, speculation, exorcism, political theatre... they're not the same everywhere, and nor is the amplitude of visual art. The secrets of its contemporaneity will lie in local cultural, political and aesthetic histories, not in some 'world' art history.

Again, by way of example, let me describe the situation in Thailand. What does the notion of the 'contemporary' mean there? How is it deployed, by whom, and to what ends? Its early use alongside the notion of 'the modern' marked out something culturally different from the local, something from elsewhere. As modern art became more and more blinkered by questions of Thainess, especially since the 1980s, it probably makes sense that the matter of contemporaneity faded from view. Most of today's artists don't use it to describe themselves (any more than they use 'Southeast Asia'); it's more a tool in the framing, rather than the practice, of contemporary art. Amongst the 'framers', meanwhile - critics, curators, organisers, policy-makers, etc - 'the contemporary' is not a consensus, but an argument. It’s a struggle over what deserves to be promoted, celebrated, critiqued and, eventually, remembered.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Again it's unwise to generalise across Asia, as far as I can tell. The rise/growth of institutions and industry is neither good nor bad in itself. New York is full of art institutions, yet there's still heaps of interesting art being made and shown there. It can certainly threaten politically engaged practices, no doubt about it. But what matters is a) whether they're good institutions in the first place and b) whether their growth (like the proverbial mango-tree) casts a suffocating shadow over the undergrowth. We could note the recuperation and gentrification of performance art in Singapore as a text-book example. It’s also important to note here that 'politically engaged art' needn't always be an 'expression of individual agency'. Contemporary art in Southeast Asia has had it bourgeois-revolutionary moments when individuals became able to assert and exercise new-found democratic voices. And we've dialectical images to show for it. But in 21st century art, much of the energy comes from groups - and not just groups of artists, but also groups of curators, collectives, ad hoc and institutional, networks of non-art collaborators, groups of viewers and participants, etc.... I don't think institutions, where they grow, will threaten artistic expression and political engagement.

Nobody expects these things from institutions anyway. The important question is how to build good institutions, staffed by professionals who know what research is and who can promote and above all defend contemporary practice. There will always be no-go areas for such organisations. That’s the nature of patronage. But it's not a problem if there are different sorts of institution, and different sorts of patron.

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Fri 2/3/2012 2:38 PM
Michelle Antoinette, Postdoctoral Fellow at Australia National University College of Arts and Social Sciences and Australia National University College of Asia and the Pacific


In his Art Bulletin contribution of 2010, “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art”, leading theorist of contemporary art, Professor Terry Smith, concludes his piece with the following thought-provoking reflections:

Placemaking, world picturing and connectivity are the most common concerns of artists these days because they are the substance of contemporary being. Increasingly, they override residual distinctions based on style, mode, medium and ideology. They are present in all art that is truly contemporary. Distinguishing, precisely, this presence in each artwork is the most important challenge to an art criticism that would be adequate to the demands of contemporaneity. Tracing the currency of each artwork within the larger forces that are shaping this present is the task of contemporary art history. (1)

Smith, one of the invitees and respondents to Foster’s original questionnaire on ‘the contemporary’, has dedicated much of his research, thinking and writing over the last decade to the topic of contemporary art, producing a number of significant publications on the topic, including most recently, his colossal undertaking, Contemporary Art: World Currents. (2) For Smith, there is a shift in art practice in the latter decades of the twentieth century, which registers the transition from the “modern” to the “contemporary”; the latter standing for more than just a label to describe the art of our present times. Rather, what Smith and others are attempting to interpret and articulate is something decidedly different in the concerns and practices of contemporary artists which becomes more clearly manifest in the 1980s and is distinguishable from the modern art currents which came before them (roughly spanning the period of the late eighteenth century through to the 1950s). In particular, Smith interprets the difference of contemporary art through its attention to the world.

Contemporary art is – perhaps for the first time in history – truly an art of the world. It comes from the whole world, and frequently tries to imagine the world as a differentiated yet inevitably connected whole. This is the definition of diversity: it is the key characteristic of contemporary art, as it is of contemporary life, in the world today. (3)

Indeed, the idea of ‘the world’, in its various guises (universalism, internationalisation, globalisation, transnationalism, cosmpolitanism, etc) has been of great interest to many in rethinking the parameters of art history as we know it and in particular, coming to terms with the remarkable impact of globalising processes on art practice since the late 1980s. It prompted a conference on the topic of “The world and world-making in art” which I co-convened (with Dr Caroline Turner, Zara Stanhope and Jackie Menzies) in 2011 at the Australian National University in Canberra. (4) Smith, along with other eminent art historians presented papers as key speakers. Professor Patrick Flores (Professor in Art History at the University of the Philippines) gave a keynote address, reflecting the concerns of numerous other papers throughout the conference about the current significance and place of ‘Asia’ in our ‘worldly’ discussions on contemporary art. In particular, he pointed to the glocal entanglements of ‘worldly’ belonging which is the postcolonial condition of the Philippines, and the powerful agency of the colonized in “disrupting the dominant worlding” of the western, occidental or European colonial imagination.(5) Flores elaborates on the notion of “worlding” in his post-conference summary of ideas raised from the conference:

… “worlding,” which is the process and mapping of this world, a geography of coordinates. For instance, how is the Asian modern worlded? And how is contemporary art described in terms of how it plays out in the world. This process of worlding destabilizes the density and tenacity of the … “world.” It lays bare the traces of its making, its construction, its rigidification, and finally its vulnerability to a reworlding. (6)

It is now widely acknowledged that world-making in art has been a political project dominated by the EuroAmericentric ‘world view’. Taking Flores’ notion of “reworlding” further, I want to suggest here that a defining feature of contemporary art – its very reason for existence – is as a result of the reworlding of art practice and Art History since the closing decades of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the assumed ‘worldly’ currents of modern and contemporary Art History prior to then, as we now well know, presumed EuroAmerican authority on the subjects and left much of the rest of the world out of the ‘world picture’, so to speak, in the story of modern and contemporary art. Contemporary art then also registers the distinct shift in thinking about the world from Eurocentric models of world-making to non-EuroAmerican perspectives. For both Smith and Flores, the postcolonial condition in particular is central to what prompts such reworlding. Smith describes this new art emerging from the postcolonial condition with consequences for the contemporary as “locally specific yet worldly in implication, inclusive yet oppositional and anti-institutional, concrete but also various, mobile and open-ended.” (7) He elaborates:

…art now comes from the whole world, from a growing number of art-producing localities that no longer depend on the approval of a metropolitan center and are, to an unprecendented degree, connected to each other in a multiplicity of ways, not least regionally and globally. Geopolitical change has shifted the world picture from presumptions about the inevitability of modernization and the universality of EuroAmerican values to recognition of the coexistence of difference, of disjunctive diversity, as characteristic of our contemporary condition. Contemporary life draws increasing numbers of artists to imagine the world… as a highly differentiated yet inevitably connected whole. (8)

Recent conferences, exhibitions and publications undertaken by ZKM, the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, under the broader rubric of Global Art and the Museum have also sought to investigate the meaning of contemporary art with ‘geography’ at the forefront of such inquiries: “Where is Contemporary Art?”, for instance, was the guiding question of the ZKM’s symposia of 2007.[*] The shift from the question of ‘What is contemporary art?’ to ‘Where is contemporary art?’ reflects the sentiments of others that a constituent component of what makes contemporary art different to that art which has come before are the concerns and questions of geography and locatedness in the globalised art landscape. That contemporary art practice is a plural and differentiated project which defies a single universalist perspective. The logical extensions to these questions against the Asian context would be: “Where is contemporary Asian art?” (9) And in my endeavours, more specifically, ‘Where is Southeast Asia in exhibitions of contemporary Asian art?’

In my own work on contemporary Southeast Asian art over recent decades, I have grappled with articulating the distinctions and affinities of Southeast Asian art practice in relation to other contemporary art practices to be found in the global art landscape from the 1980s until now. (11) Unlike the catalogue of nations which became a feature of the contemporary art biennales and triennales of the 1990s, my work has sought to investigate the possibilities and consequences of a ‘regional’ view of art history – not one which assumes an essentialised Southeast Asia, but rather one that is necessarily seen as always shifting in its contours and scope, and also, in continuous dialogue or relation with both local and global histories and currents informing art practice. In other words, I have explored the significance of contemporary Southeast Asian art and artists and their place within the newly globalised art world and the field of ‘contemporary art’, enfolded and refracted through the wider international visibility of contemporary Asian art since the late twentieth century. This regional impetus and scope is foregrounded in the desire to probe the very constitution of contemporary art itself, especially within the context of ‘the global contemporary’. In this sense, my work is an effort to reflect on the generative possibilities of Southeast Asian regionalism as a critical apparatus for forging more complex interpretations concerning the conditions and constitution of contemporary art and its developing critique and history, beyond the EuroAmerican focused models which once dominated art history. It is not only concerned to counter the omissions of mainstream (Western) art history, but also recognises the specific contributions of Southeast Asian artists and their cultural and aesthetic histories to our understanding of contemporary art. In other words, the new and diverse forms of avant-garde or experimental art in Southeast Asia which have emerged since the late twentieth century are in fact constitutive of the very development and existence of that growing field of practice and study that we now call ‘contemporary art’, (12) contributing to its formation and evolving definitions. Importantly, my attention to contemporary Southeast Asian art is informed by earlier histories of art from within the region itself, including its earlier international cross-currents.

Of course, the idea of ‘Southeast Asia’ continues to be debated for its parameters, significance and critical possibilities. In my work I am attentive to the impossibility of describing contemporary Southeast Asian art in an all-inclusive, totalist frame while also addressing the local and personal contexts of art production which find presence in contemporary Southeast Asian art. In this sense, I follow the work of area studies scholars who argue the critical utility of ‘Southeast Asia’, not as a fixed category of geographical reference, but as a “contingent device” for developing knowledge about the region. (13) Paradoxically, regionalism continues to thrive in a globalising world and finds strong presence in the practices and discourses of contemporary art from regions such as ‘Southeast Asia’, and larger ones such as ‘Asia’, in which new contemporary art networks (14) are being forged across national borders, as seen in the important work of the Asia Art Archive.

With the forceful emergence of contemporary Southeast Asian art on the international landscape at the close of the twentieth century, two long-standing impasses are finally surmounted: first, that locales such as Southeast Asia, once imagined as peripheral to the project of modernity and therefore, perpetually and exclusively marked by practices of tradition, are finally recognised as significant contexts of modern and contemporary art production; and second, recognition that culturally cognate, and similar but different, processes and practices of modernization, occurring in the West and elsewhere, activate different manifestations of modern and contemporary art. By this reckoning, the notion of ‘tradition’ can no longer be regarded simply in an antithetical stance to modernity but rather must be seen as a constitutive part of what forges such modernity. In this vein, ‘contemporary art’ must acknowledge the plural and manifold artistic practices of people the world over and recognise that the ‘traditional’ may exist contiguously and even find presence in contemporary art and life. (15) Thus, contemporary Southeast Asian art offers the potential of pushing the parameters of contemporary art more generally (the means by which we define it, including its modes, mediums, styles, and conditions of reception, among other formalist and affective considerations) so as to encompass those kinds of living ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ art that are less readily translatable into the preexisting frames of international avant-garde art practices with their EuroAmerican inheritances and biases.

The belated acknowledgement of Asia’s ‘living’ visual cultures occurs after a largely exclusive, orientalist interest in pre-modern forms of Asian art such as Buddhist and Hindu stone carvings from Japan and Indonesia, traditional wooden masks and puppets from Malaya, Chinese ink woodcuts and calligraphic paintings, embroidered textiles of South and Southeast Asia, and ukiyo-e prints from the Edo and Meiji periods of Japan. Through the prevalence of these representations ‘Asian Art’ becomes eternally anchored to a traditional past and continues to govern popular imaginations about ‘authentic’ Asian cultures. In particular, Asia comes to signify the ‘primitive’, the ‘timeless’ and the ‘traditional’.

As Geeta Kapur remarked of the situation, “Non-Western nations, though struggling with the processes of modernization, are excluded from claiming modernism. Or they are seen as incidental to it.” (16) Along with Kapur, a handful of other Asian art history specialists such as John Clark, T.K. Sabapathy, Redza Piyadasa, Patrick Flores, Apinan Poshyanada, and Jim Supangkat, paved the way in the late 1980s and 1990s for the recognition of modern art history in Asia, dedicating their work to redressing anachronistic perceptions of Asian art and asserting the unique and manifold developments of modernity and Modernism across the Asian region. (17) Since the emergence of their important contributions to the field of Asian art histories, Modernism has been recast not as an exclusively Western idea or phenomenon but one which is both born out of and influenced by Asian cultural currents. 

The pioneering work of these theorists of modern Asian art not only carves a space for the documentation of modern art practice in Asia and an attention to its distinctiveness, but also signals that the contemporary art practices to be found across Asia today have art historical precedents of their own, and are not simply an imitation or extension of EuroAmerican currents of contemporary art practice. In his exhibition Telah Terbit (1997), the Singapore-based curator Ahmad Mashadi enlightened us to the local currents of contemporary art in Southeast Asia which can be traced to the 1960s and 1970s. During this period significant artists dared to break new ground in their local art contexts including: Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa of Malaysia (with their project of 1974 Towards a Mystical Reality), the Kaisahan Group of the Philippines, the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) in Indonesia (1975-79), and the Singaporean Cheo Chai-Hang (with his experimental conceptual art practices of the mid-1970s). (18) Moreover, the genres of installation and performance art, often cited as key markers of international contemporary art practice with their histories in EuroAmerican art traditions, have been argued by some as bearing affinities to Southeast Asian cultural rituals, including Filipino sculptural traditions and the Indonesian wayang theatre and puppetry traditions. (19) So too, the recent attention ‘to socially-engaged’ or ‘participatory art’ practices since the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories of “relational art” has raised the question of longer, locally-driven histories of community-based, dialogical art practices in cultures across Southeast Asia. (20) What is more certain is that, in general, contemporary art in Southeast Asia emerges in response to a reevaluation of established modernisms in the region and a reconsideration of the significance, purpose and means of art practice for rapidly changing Southeast Asian societies. Dominant concerns of early contemporary art practice include the questioning of ‘internationalism’ as a hegemonic framework for art practice, particularly in its preoccupations with the fashionable styles of abstraction and formalism, a consequent turn to social and political contexts (22), and an insistence to reflexivity as part of the very constitution of art. (21) In this context, as Flores has discussed, the instrumental hybrid figure of the Southeast Asian “artist-curator” emerges with important consequences for the history of curation (of contemporary art) in Southeast Asia and therefore also, for the exhibition of contemporary Southeast Asian art (locally and beyond). (23)

My research has also been attuned to the largely failed attention in much contemporary art scholarship to the aesthetic encounter in contemporary Southeast Asian art – that is, the acute attentiveness and sensitivity to formalist and affective considerations which lies at the core of art practice and its reception. These have often been overlooked in place of the hegemonic socio-political and culturalist discourses and ideologies prevalent since the late 1980s international attention to contemporary art outside EuroAmerica, particularly coalescing under the sign of postcolonialism. As a result, what we know about contemporary Southeast Asian art has been largely and sometimes exclusively guided by issues of ethnicity, politics, and cultural history, and less so by the art movements, aesthetic currents and affective concerns which have informed contemporary art practices emanating from the region. This approach runs the risk of anthropologising the art object, reducing it to a mere mirror of Southeast Asian cultures. It also denies the possibility of forging distinctions and relation between contemporary Southeast Asian art and contemporary art produced in different contexts: what formal considerations of modes, mediums, styles, and conditions of reception, for instance, prompt us to be moved by contemporary Southeast Asian art in ways different or similar to other contemporary art? What is the relationship of such formalist and affective considerations to earlier practices and histories of art emanating from the region?

What I am arguing for is a notion of ‘contemporary art’ which also recalls the actual encounter with art as an affective and sensory experience of embodied relation. These relations are of course differentiated through the multiplicity of experiences that are possible in the embodied encounter with art (modes and milieu of reception, discursive frames, individual experience, etc). Although such affect is often posited within the realm of ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’, these encounters are not without real political influence and ethical consequence. As Meskimmon and Bennett (also speakers at our conference) have argued in different ways, art has the capacity to affect us, to move us to enact politics in the world. (24) It enables a politics of transformation through the sensory response to art itself.

Meskimmon has argued in her book Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, that as much as “artworks show us about the world… they can [also] enable us to participate in, and potentially change, the parameters through which we negotiate that world”. (25) Situating her arguments within art’s affective turn, Meskimmon’s “commitment [is] to articulating works of art beyond the logic of representation where that entails art’s operation as a mute mirroring, a mere reflection of the conditions of the world, rather than as an active constituent element within them.” (26) While Meskimmon’s intent is not explicitly about probing the defining criteria for contemporary art, I would suggest that her argument about the ‘cosmopolitan imagination’ is yet another means of distinguishing and revealing the particular ‘worldliness’ of contemporary art, articulated through the affective frames of relation and dialogue that are constituent elements of encountering art, and which makes art a contemporary concern of transcultural curiosity and experience. I quote her at length:

Understanding ourselves as wholly embedded within the world, we can imagine people and things beyond our immediate experience and develop our ability to respond to very different spaces, meanings and others.

Potentially, art is one of the most significant modes through which the cosmopolitan imagination emerges and is articulated. By materializing concepts and meanings beyond the limits of a narrow individualism, art enables us to encounter difference, imagine change that has yet to come, and make possible the new…

Imagining ourselves at home in the world, where our homes are not fixed objects but processes of material and conceptual engagements with other people and different places, is the first step toward becoming cosmopolitan. Art is especially able to convey the intimate relation between the material and the conceptual that this requires, invoking the contingency of home but positioning us at the nexus of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’, while using the sensory force of objects, images and spaces to engage memory, desire and cognition. In short, art threatens to bring us to our sense in the midst of anaesthetising histories designed to facilitate the instrumental logic of global capitalism. In its affectivity, it runs counter to those forces that would isolate us in our singularity and foreclose generosity, intimacy and care – the very source of ethical agency. (27)

Echoing Meskimmon, I suggest that in recalling the affective foundations for engaging with art we are also in a position to recognise both the particular generative contexts of contemporary Southeast Asian art, as well as its affective effect on all those who experience it – within, across and beyond its regional borders, reflecting the intensely globalised practices and conditions of being-in-the-world which have marked humanity since the late twentieth century.

Certainly the particular significance of contemporary art is defined by new world currents and relations and the recognition of once peripheral localities in the constitution of contemporary art. However, in recognizing the difference of contemporary art from Southeast Asia I am also, at the same time, suggesting its cosmopolitan connectedness to contemporary art from elsewhere with different contexts and influences of making. That as well as difference, there is a commonality and mutuality in contemporary art practice, its defining discourses and ideas, that reverberates in the global currents of contemporary art making and its reception and which asks us to respond to aesthetics with human sensitivity. In this way, contemporary art’s intellectual frame activates a space for considering questions of the particular and the relational, discrepant and intersecting worlds, and parallel flows of world-making in all its diversity.


(1) Terry Smith, “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art”, Art Bulletin, vol. XCII, no. 4 (December 2010): 380.
(2) Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011).

(3) Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, 8.
(4) Humanities Research Centre conference, “The World and World-Making in Art”, Australian National University, Canberra, August 11-13, 2011. Convenors: Dr Caroline Turner, Dr Michelle Antoinette, Zara Stanhope, Jacqueline Menzies. See http://hrc.anu.edu.au/events/worldart
(5) Patrick Flores, “The Philippine Polytrope: Intimating the World in Pieces”, keynote paper presented at the Humanities Research Centre  conference, “The World and World-Making in Art”, Australian National University, Canberra, August 11-13, 2011, unpublished.
(6) Patrick Flores, post-conference summary for the Humanities Research Centre conference, “The World and World-Making in Art”, Australian National University, Canberra, August 11-13, 2011, pers.comm. (05/10/2011), unpublished.
(7) Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009): 151-152.
(8) Terry Smith, “Currents of World-Making in Contemporary Art”, World Art 1.2 (2011): 20-36 (forthcoming).
(9) See the ZKM’s “Global Art and the Museum” project website, http://globalartmuseum.de/site/home
(10) See Patrick Flores, “Place and Presence: Conditions of Possibilities in Contemporary Asian Art,” unpublished paper presented at the 2002 Power Lecture in Contemporary Visual Culture series, The Power Institute Foundation For Art & Visual Culture, and The Department of Art History and Theory (University of Sydney), held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 25 September 2002).
(11) Michelle Antoinette, “Contending with Present Pasts: On Developing Southeast Asian Art Histories”, in Jaynie Anderson (ed.), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence. Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009): 870-874; “Images that quiver: the in/visible geographies of ‘Southeast Asian’ contemporary art” (PhD thesis; Canberra: Australian National University, 2005); “Drawing New Maps of Identification: Shifting Cartographies of Southeast Asian Art,” paper presented at the Our Modernities: Positioning Asian Art Now Conference, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 19–22 February 2004, http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/conf2004/asianart.htm (accessed 8 September 2004).
(12) On the complex task of defining ‘contemporary art’ and its discourses in Southeast Asia as well as the obstacles to its regional knowledge exchange, see Flores, “Place and Presence: Conditions of Possibilities in Contemporary Asian Art,”; Jim Supangkat, “Contemporary Art: What/When/Where,” in The Second Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (exh. cat.; South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1996): 26–28; Lee Weng Choy ‘The distance between us/Comparative contemporaries/criticism as symptom’, in Nicholas Tsoutas (ed), Knowledge+Dialogue+Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South (Sydney: Artspace, 2005): 51–65; and Lee Weng Choy’s position paper for the Asia Art Archive “Comparative Contemporaries” web anthologies project, http://www.aaa.org.hk/research_currentprojectsdetails_01.aspx
(13) See Heather Sutherland, “Contingent Devices,” in Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space, eds. Paul H. Kratoska, Remco Raben, Henk Schulte Nordholt (Singapore: Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, 2005): 20-59; and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, Modern Asian Studies 31.3 (1997): 735-762.
(14) I am currently carrying out new research on this topic with Dr Caroline Turner, supported by an Australian Research Council research grant, exploring “The Rise of New Cultural Networks in Asia in the Twenty-First Century”.
(15) See Nicholas Thomas, “Contemporary art and the limits of globalisation,” in The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, ed. Caroline Turner & Rhana Devenport (exh. cat.; Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1996): 17–18; and Nicholas Thomas, “Our History is Written in Our Mats: Reflections on Contemporary Art, Globalisation and History,” Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art 2006 (5th APT; exh. cat.; Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2005): 24–31.
(16) Geeta Kapur, “Contemporary Cultural Practice: Some Polemical Categories,” in The Third Text Reader on Art, Culture and Society, ed. Rasheed Araeen, Sean Cubitt, & Ziauddin Sardar (London & New York: Continuum, 2002): 19.
(17) On the subject of Modern Asian Art see: John Clark, Modern Asian Art (Sydney: Craftsman House G+B Arts International, 1998); Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika, 2000);  T.K. Sabapathy ed., Modernity and Beyond: Themes in Southeast Asian Art (exh. cat.; Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 1996); and Furuichi Yasuko & Nakamoto Kazumi eds., Asian Modernism: Diverse Development in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, ed. (Tokyo: Japan Foundation Asia Center, 1995).
(18) Ahmad Mashadi, “Southeast Asian Art During the 1970s,” in Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to 1980s (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2007): 14-24.
(19) See Raymundo R. Albano, “Installations: A Case for Hangings,” Philippine Art Supplement 2.1 (1981): 2–3; FX Harsono, “The Installation as the Language of Social Concern,” in conference papers of The First Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Identity, Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of the Asian Pacific Region (QAG, Queensland Cultural Centre, South Bank, Brisbane, 17–20 September 1993; Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1993); Julie Ewington, “Five Elements: An abbreviated account of installation art in South-East Asia,” ART and AsiaPacific 2.1 (1995): 110.
(20) See essays by Iola Lenzi and Tan Boon Hui in the accompanying exhibition catalogue for Singapore Art Museum’s 2011 exhibition, Home History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011 (Singapore: SAM, 2011).
(21) See Caroline Turner ed., Art and Social Change (Canberra: Pandanus, 2005).
(22) See Ahmad Mashadi, “Southeast Asian Art During the 1970s”, in Telah Terbit (Out Now) Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to1980s (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum):14-24
(23) Patrick Flores, Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Museum, National University of Singapore, 2008); and Patrick Flores, “Turns in Tropics: Artist-Curator,” in Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, Okwui Enwezor ed. (Gwangju: Gwangju Biennale, 2008).
(24) See Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2005); and Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London & New York, Routledge, 2011).
(25) Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London & New York, Routledge, 2011): 6.
(26) Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London & New York, Routledge, 2011): 6.
(27) Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London & New York: Routledge, 2011): 8.

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Sat 2/11/2012 10:54 PM
Reiko Tomii, Scholar and co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon

“Contemporarity” Studies?

Why do we want to talk about “the contemporary”? Because we are witnessing the formation of “contemporary art” that is not merely current. (If it were, then, every era has had its own share of contemporary—read: new—art). Without necessarily acknowledging it, we sense something special is happening in front of our eyes and we long to articulate it.

The issue of “the contemporary” or gendai has informed my study of post-1945 Japanese art almost from the beginning. Two essays of mine—“Historicizing ‘Contemporary Art’: Some Discursive Practices in Gendai Bijutsu in Japan” (2004) and “‘International Contemporaneity’ in the 1960s: Discoursing on Art in Japan and Beyond” (2009) (1)—in particular represent my effort to examine the art critical discourse about gendai and the concept of “international contemporaneity” in 1960s Japan, when gendai bijutsu (literally “contemporary art”) became institutionalized as an extension of “avant-garde” (zen’ei) art. It is my contention that 1960s Japan serves as a paradigmatic site of world art history, not only because of its artistic importance as one of the major battlegrounds of postwar vanguard art worldwide but also its critical implications.

A vexing nature of world art history or transnational art history is language—because, needless to say, the lack thereof constitutes barriers beyond one’s familiar languages but, more fundamentally, because language defines how we think.

In my study of gendai, I have been especially frustrated by the lack of the term’s exact counterpart in English. A convenient noun-adjective, gendai signifies a concrete sense of time (“[of] our era” and “[of] today”), with a distinct connotation of “times after kindai (modern times),” although the demarcation point from kindai to gendai is fluid. Thus, although it can be combined with art (bijutsu), like the English “contemporary,” to form gendai bijutsui, the resulting phrase, unlike the English “contemporary art,” has a clearly recognized historical sense, both as an area of practice (distinct from the modern practices of painting and sculpture that date back to Meiji Japan) and as a periodization term signifying that which comes after kindai bijutsu (modern art). Furthermore, as a stand-alone noun, gendai carries an abstract concept as opposed to kindai, which in this sense should be translated as “modernity.” (2)

In art, it was the art critic Miyakawa Atushi (1933–1977) who perceptively recognized the urgency of positively conceptualized gendai, as opposed to kindai, witnessing the Japanese art world awash with new tendencies of gestural abstraction and Anti-Art (Han-geijutsu) in what I define as the expanded 1960s. He wrote in his landmark essay of 1963, “After ‘Informel,’”

Although people have already started talking about contemporary painting, as opposed to modern art, they just make a distinction from kindai what has become a matter of fact. However, kindai is not merely a style-concept [yōshiki gainen]; it constitutes a value-concept [kachi gainen], underlined by an intense consciousness and sensitivity of kindai first recognized by Baudelaire.

Paradoxically speaking, having so long deemed kindai as a synonym of contemporain, we now reach a point at which we should not relegate gendai into the generic concept of contemporain, a point at which we should redeem in advance gendai from contemporain.(3)

Almost five decades after this text was written, today Miyakawa’s call for the discourse of gendai sounds more relevant than ever, as we confront the issue of the contemporary and contemporary art. Following his contention that kindai at once concerns “style” and “value,” I argue that the current state of art in particular and the world in general demands to conceptualize “the contemporary” as both “style” and “value,” which are “underlined by an intense consciousness and sensitivity” of today’s world.

In the world of art, the discursive articulation of “style” is a basic concern and we have developed a gamut of ideas and terms to deal with “contemporary art.” However, how about “value”? Have we even begun to articulate its “value” (which I take Miyakawa to have meant a set of conceptual, critical, and theoretical perspectives)?

Speaking of “value,” what is the parallel for “contemporary” that “modernity” is for “modern”? Granted, “contemporaneity” signifies the quality or state of being contemporary. However, this noun has to perform double duty as the noun form of both “contemporary” and “contemporaneous,” the latter more matter-of-factly meaning “existing, occurring, or originating during the same time.” (4) Although I have probed the critical and methodological depth of “contemporaneity” as “being contemporaneous” in my study, I must admit it is at best confusing to have to use one noun for these two adjectives that are complementary yet of different critical weights: if two given works are contemporaneous (i.e., made at the same time, chronologically speaking), they may not both be called “contemporary art” (art critically speaking). Yet, “being contemporaneous” in a broad global context indelibly marks “contemporary art” and our engagement with it.

The Japanese language is here again useful, having two different words for two different concepts, dōjidai (the state of being contemporaneous, in the same era) and gendai (the state of being contemporary).

Needless to say, “the contemporary” makes a noun form of “contemporary” imbued with a conceptual significance, which make a pair with “the modern.” However, not having a distinct noun form of its own makes “contemporary” a bastard sibling to “modern,” which can boast of “modernity.”

Therefore, I would like to propose “contemporarity” (contemporar[y] + ity) as a sister concept of “modernity” (modern +ity) and “contemporarity studies” as an expanded counterpart of “modernity studies.”

I can think of a few theoretical merits of this neologism.

Above all, “contemporarity” underscores our sense of living in a world fundamentally changed from that of modernity, which has gone on for more than one century. If History with a capital letter “H” may have famously ended and “contemporarity” could not happen without modernity, history did not end with modernity, as we continue to live in contemporarity that is part of historical unfolding.

Currently, contemporary art is often discussed in the context of the globalizing art industry—the globalized art market and the international exhibition circuit of biennales and triennales. However, homogeneity characterizes the state of art far less accurately than that of economics. The industry’s globalization often prompted intense localizations of some practices, as seen with community-based contemporary practices that have proliferated in Japan. (One such example is Inujima Project by Yanagi Yukinori, a poster child of the globalizing art world with his The World Flag Ant Farm [1990], who eschewed the commercialization of contemporary art and returned to Japan.) In other words, we need to understand contemporary art in its state of contemporarity between “global” and “local,” “transnational” and “national.” Local inflections continue to mark contemporary art as with modern art. If we now examine modernism in terms of multiple modernisms and alternative modernities, don’t we also have to consider contemporary art in terms of multiple and alternative contemporarities? Indeed, multiplicity and heterogeneity are two hallmarks of contemporary art.

As applications of contemporarity, two questions attracted my attention among those posed by the archive.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

The pitfall of “the contemporary” is its ahistoricality, so long as we are bound by its “present-ness.” Since contemporarity is the state beyond modernity, by definition, it is a historical and historicized concept that should allow us to deploy all art-historical and other historical tools we have developed to study modernity, even though their mindless application is certainly dangerous.

Furthermore, as with modernity and modern art, different temporalities and historicities of contemporarity and contemporary art are informed, not by any means “prescribed,” by local disseminations and inflections. While the territoriality of Eurocentricism may be as strong today as decades ago, its sense of territory has since been fragmented by the very diversity of contemporary practices. By conceptualizing our sense of time as contemporarity, we may be able to offer a fresh insight that will liberate us from the stricture of modernity.

This term and concept is not free of its own complication. For example, one may demand an “exact periodization” of modern vs. contemporary times. Suppose modernity covers roughly from the 1850s to the 1950s: would contemporarity be from the 1960s onward? If so, then, in fifty years or a century, would we need another new “periodization term” when contemporarity loses its validity?[*]

It is important to remember that even though we may have a general “standard time(frame)” of modernity vs. contemporarity, that will be complicated by many “local time(frames)” or assorted local clocks that mark time differently. But as a whole, the time differences, so to speak, are dramatically more closed up in contemporarity than in modernity.

As for the future of contemporarity, I am more than certain that at one point in the future we may need another concept and term to articulate the present-ness then. It can be easily imagined, if only we see how the word “modern” itself is bound by this “present-ness” problem (in English, “modern” also refers to “today’s” as we commonly talk about “modern politics” and “modern life” in the everyday context). But that is precisely the reason, as the critic Miyakawa perceptively pointed out, why we need to positively conceptualize our “contemporarity” as opposed to “modernity.”

Ultimately, this is a project larger than art, but art appears to prompt us most acutely to expand ourselves in our thinking.


(1) “Historicizing ‘Contemporary Art’” was first published in Positions 12.3 (Winter 2004), 611–41; and reprinted in Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader, ed. Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 295–325. “‘International Contemporaneity’ in the 1960s” first appears in Japan Review, no. 21 (2009), 123–47 (http://shinku.nichibun.ac.jp/jpub/pdf/jr/JN2103.pdf).

(2) Linguistic discussion is complicated by the interchangeability of “modern” and “contemporary” in English: post-Newtonian physics is called gendai butsurigaku (contemporary physics) in Japanese and “modern physics” in English. Furthermore, different meanings of the same 現代 have been conceptualized in different cultures using Chinese characters.
(3) Miyakawa Atsushi, "Anforumeru igo" (After Informel), Bijutsu techō, no. 220 (May 1963); reprinted in Miyakawa Atsushi chosakushū (Writings by Miyakawa Atsushi), vol. 2 (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1980), 17. The use of French in translations are from the original Japanese text.
(4) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contemporaneous.
(5) In my study of 20th-century collectivism in Japanese art, I have already encountered a similar problem: the sense of gendai bijutsu which was firmly established by 1970 in the art world is now replaced by kontenporarī āto, literally “contemporary art,” underscored by the globalization, turning gendai bijutsu into a thing of the past in many ways. See Tomii, “Collectivism in 20th-Century Japanese Art:An Introduction with Operational Observations of Dantai”  in “Collectivism in 20th-Century Japanese Art,” guest-edited with Midori Yoshimoto, Positions (forthcoming in 2013).

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Wed 2/22/2012 11:35 PM
Hu Fang, Critic and curator based in Beijing and Guangzhou

Back to Prehistoric Cosmopolis; Dongba Hieroglyphs

The story goes back to five years ago, when I first came across the Swedish sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist’s publication China: Empire of Living Symbols. This book once again illuminated to me the trans-temporal quality of hieroglyphs, as well as the over-consumption of words and writing which so plague our current reality. It also became clear to me that amidst the rapid changes that China undergoes, we are forgetting history at an incredible speed. By a stroke of chance I recently discovered the mysterious celebration of hieroglyphs preserved in the Dongba culture, which allegedly harbours the only surviving hieroglyphic system in the world. Indeed, the Dongba hieroglyphs face the danger of becoming a touristic commodity; nonetheless such a development does not overshadow their vitality and charm.

Before there were any writing systems, figurative and abstract representations were the medium through which humankind communicated. The histories of such images lurk beneath the characters we now use – these images are the subconscious ‘lingua franca.’

Instead of treating hieroglyphs as writing, we may as well see them as new spatial prototypes. While the ‘immediate interaction’ enabled by the hieroglyphic form promises a whole new imaginative horizon, it simultaneously demands attention to their content. Hieroglyphs not only embody an urgency to express, but also assert an autonomous status as a poetic language that refuses to be consumed.

Our present time may be one where pre-historical silence meets post-historical (consumed) silence. Existing expressions never suffice. In the current state of affairs, are we not desperately questioning the crisis in human beings’ inner worlds and the illusion of ourselves as the sole centre of the world? This concept has not only prevented human beings from communicating with the world, but also deterred our interactions with the self.

When space becomes denser than the scale of humanity, it in turn oppresses our living space. Should we not then return to pose this basic question – how can human senses sculpt the body of a space while allowing all that happens within to shape ourselves at the same time?

When interaction becomes an alienated economic act instead of a mutual coming together of hearts, should we not consider breaking down the ‘bubble economy’ of language and returning to the direct contact of everyday life? Should we not probe the question of how the expressions and interactions of an individual can influence the everyday’s perception and thus extend its universality?

Perhaps, at the end of this process, our attempts would create precisely a new public domain – a Wordless Echo – where a new language flowing between sounds, images, and bodies excites the human sensorium and implies a new political order –

Those who insist on singing
Those who frantically write in the deepest of nights

Those who try to remember everything with their senses
With their eyes, noses, ears, and skin
Are also learning how to give up –
To give up on defense
To give up on explanation
–– The poetry of air
Can only be read
In the act of breathing ––
This is the reason flora blossom
And also the signal of reconciliation between the world and us.

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Wed 2/29/2012 9:41 AM
Hammad Nasar, Curator and co-founder of Green Cardamom, London

The contemporary moment and role of institutions in Asia

Notions of the “contemporary” and “contemporaneity” have made most of the noise in the art world over the last decade, in particular with the Euro-American institutions that dominate global “air time” for art. Public museums look to the contemporary to keep themselves relevant and their collections alive. Art fairs and auction houses may make more money on Picasso and Warhol, but they too look to contemporary art for their expansion and future prosperity – a strategy they share with the commercial gallery sector, with its front room contemporary shows and back room modern dealing. But I would argue, that in relative terms, it has ever been thus.

Where things are markedly different is the new emphasis on contemporaneity in the academy. This is (at least partly) driven by the recognition that art has become what the cultural theorist Irit Rogoff describes as an undisciplined field: one where disciplinary boundaries are irrelevant and violated as a matter of course.

The other engine for growth for the contemporary—across the academy, and both institutional and commercial sectors—is the diverse sources of economic growth in the world. Contemporary art is no longer, to borrow former Director-General Greg Dyke’s description of the BBC he took over, “hideously white.” The academy wants young lecturers to teach its students about Chinese and Indian art; the museum wants to partner with regional institutions, recruit adjunct curators and hire advisory groups to grow its collections and accumulate knowledge; the larger Euro-American galleries have become one-stop shop department stores, carrying exotic new brands for a geographically expanding clientele; and more and more collectors now pursue collecting with the same discipline, drive and global ambition with which they developed their businesses. And if wealth creation is increasingly in the East – the nucleus of the art world will of course shift eastwards. Witness the rise of Hong Kong as an auctions market and as host to outposts of the world’s largest commercial galleries. Again – it has ever been thus.

In this context I think it is incumbent on us to ask what role “institutions” need to play in Asia. Indeed it is imperative we try and develop a vision for what such institutions should be. But perhaps it is simpler to start with what they should not be. For me, they should not be about achieving instrumental aims of redevelopment or tourism – a legacy of the Bilbao effect that has become a chronic and global affliction. They should not be about trying to build me-too collections of global brands or Turbine Halls for grand, and often grandiose, artistic gestures. In Asia, I think, we need institutions where buildings come last.

In that vein, I would like to champion two different roles for institutions in Asia. One is the creation of knowledge. This knowledge may still be centered on the contemporary (we do inhabit that moment so can be forgiven for wanting to privilege it), but would anchor this focus on the here and now within an arc of history. Aiming at an understanding that is not hagiographic, essentialising or reductive, but one that allows whispered histories to rise to the surface. To operate within the realities of Asia today – such an institution or rather such a role would not need vast collections of objects or a well-stocked academic faculty. But would need to be able to access and leverage both in a flexible way. I see something more akin to Wikipedia than MoMA.

My other plea would be to build institutions or programmes that can provide some source of support, solace, validation or recognition for artists other than that provided by the market. I see artists from art infrastructure poor countries vacillating between the lure of the market and the treadmill of “vehicular” (as opposed to vernacular) art that can be consumed with ease on the global circuit of the biennial, and the region-focused show.

These are not pipe dreams, for I can see aspects of both these roles in numerous programmes operating in Asia today – East, West and South. The government-funded Sharjah Art Foundation runs both an annual platform of knowledge exchange (the March Meeting) and a newly established production programme that it has de-linked from the Biennial; the corporate-sponsored Abraaj Capital Arts Prize shares a $1 million annual prize between five artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region to realize new projects chosen by a changing jury from hundreds of artist submissions; the nearly 50-years old government funded Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi has created an institutional space to support interdisciplinary research on a diverse range of contemporary issues; Hong Kong’s non-profit Asia Art Archive has built a flexible and potentially wide-reaching base from the seemingly narrow focus of documenting and sharing contemporary art practices in Asia; and in the Istanbul-based SALT, a corporate-funded institution has created an innovative platform for research, where the exhibition is a means of enquiry as well as display. The ingredients for the institutions we need in Asia to build knowledge and support critical artistic practices can be found in many of the programmes mentioned above. We need the vision to stitch them together, and the fortitude to let them grow at their own pace.

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Fri 3/16/2012 11:51 PM
Gayatri Sinha, Critic and Curator
based in Delhi

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

The institution is significant in a generic way. In the Indian context, institutions that devolve around the social sciences have probably had a role in shaping the contemporary. The contemporary in India has its roots in institutional critique, especially the cusp of movement from the modern to post modern practices in the late 60s and early 70s. State institutions of art –and their rejection thereof by the Indian avant-garde artists – actually provided the provocation for the movement into the moment of the contemporary.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

The discourse on contemporary art is simultaneous with the principal ‘actors’ of the street – religion, politics and Bollywood. Indian social polity is intensely visual; everything shares a free-floating domain of mobile images. Contemporary art draws, refutes, satirizes, documents, mimics these players of the field.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Probably not in a broad discursive way but in the narrow sense of the art world and its limited circuits of exchange, yes.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

This is complex. As with any post colonial society, history and politics have actively provoked, galvanized and patronized the arts. (The arts in turn have critiqued them and built a super-structure of discourse precisely on such public instruments). Temporality is I believe critical. I am persuaded that India for instance is in a second Asian awakening, if you like, the first being during the 1920s when Sun Yat Sen, Okakura Tenshin and Rabindranath Tagore drew up a shared and idyllic vision of pan Asia. The present Indian consciousness of Asia in the arts is not so romantic. There is a cynical understanding of the market model of Chinese art, but there is also a genuine desire to de-link from the intellectual and critical dependency on the West. Since the mid 1990’s, Japan and the APT circuit became active Asian interlocutors. These provided serious curatorial dialogue. Now China seems to provide new possibility. South Asian art within the region – with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh is also a shared and increasingly familiar framework, with common themes of terror, politics, gender issues etc. Issues of censorship in the arts are also shared.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

Folk and traditional have different layers of engagement. The ‘collaboration’ with tribal artists, the contemporary interpretation of the miniature form and its divergent development in India and Pakistan. However the relationship between modern/contemporary and folk – tribal/traditional is an old and unresolved tension.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

The institutions that are emerging in India are a handful of private museums and the new art fairs which also enter the discursive space. These spaces do tend to blunt the edge off political art, but they are also catalysts to divergence and difference.

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Tue 3/27/2012 11:19 AM
Elaing Ng, Editor and publisher of ArtAsiaPacific


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

The institution is, via its curators, the tastemaker and window dresser of contemporary art, and as such serves the art-going public a menu over which they have little choice. In making choices, it is impossible to perceive the curator, the institution’s board, or the funding sources of the institution as anything but subjective and subject to whims, fears, fashions, personal connections, corporate images, political correctness, considerations of class, education and status, hidden agendas, etc. If the artist’s production and creativity can operate outside of this nexus of influences, we would not have art as it is today. Art would seem to thrive outside the institution, or in its pre-institutional state, when there is maximum animosity and distrust between the institution and the artist, when the obstacles raised by institutions blocking and inhibiting entry are insurmountable.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

The disciplines of visual culture and theory are undeveloped in the Asia region. The absence of a sophisticated superstructure encourages impulse collecting, without the inhibiting layer of art criticism. Art, status, money, fame are the elements that make for a more visceral and less vapid art market, but pave the way for mindless art. One wants to sense the blood and sweat and avoid the condescending glances.

Are we trapped in the trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Fortunately, we are, for the present served up is the daily crisis of the artist. Everyone else—all those consumers and their appendages--has countless choices, from past to future.

Is temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

Well, hardly. Certainly not since the invention of the book, not to mention the Internet. But these buoys and landmarks are clung to by the less imaginative and lend themselves all too easily to nationalism and mock-nationalism.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices?

Depends on the nationalistic codes being conveyed in the work, the exhibition, the interpretation, the audience’s own experience of, identification with, misunderstanding of, folk tradition. To cite one example, most of the Chinese art that deals with “Things Chinese” has a tendency to be bland, obvious, obsequious and trivial. In this case, the Chinese are merely assuming the masks, costumes and odors of “traditional China.” This self-conscious, make-work production merely operates as a sideshow to Chinese reality, a menagerie of familiar freaks and obvious magic tricks, protecting the behind and serving the interests of the circus’s true ringmaster. In great art, particular folk trends and traditions become part of the universal vocabulary of art, and need no translation.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Authoritarian regimes with loose borders—physical, electronic, etc.—provide a cushy context for the making of political art, and gift artists with endless, or perhaps endlessly repetitive sources of subject matter. But what’s the sense of that? The arrest of an artist by a repressive state is unquestionably an attempt on the part of the state to create a work of art; from the state’s point of view, each arrest is a great, if not the greatest, most representative Happening, Installation, Intervention. Because it is state-funded, it does not require any commercial value. All of these “works” share the most influence. In other words, to repress art is to take over the role of the artist. The question is, who is the best, or worst, criminal, the repressive state, or the repressed artist?

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Wed 4/4/2012 6:51 PM
Salima Hashmi, Dean of the School of Visual Arts, Beaconhouse National University


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? 

The ‘institution’ has played a defining role in contemporary art in Pakistan. In our case, the ‘institution’ is the ‘academy’. This is because other institutions such as such as art councils were either absent or inefficient. Although a few individuals, who were the pioneers of the modern movement, e.g. Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Pervaiz, Shemza were self-taught, others benefited from art educational programs. These artists—‘the moderns’—were the precursors of the ‘contemporary’. They were by and large Cubists who may or may not have absorbed influences directly from the West, but were aware of a change in ways of seeing in the post-World War I years.

The evolution of individual practice in relation to ‘institutions’, has been linked both to an interest in traditional ways of working, as well as to experimentation in both process and content, which was a direct result of political events in the Nation state.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

In Pakistan many contemporary practitioners have looked to the paradigm of popular culture and its manifestation in peoples’ lives. Because art history and criticism is one of the most neglected areas in academia, there is only a nascent connection between contemporary practice and theory.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

It is teaching within the academy which has been most influential in contemporary art in Pakistan. This still dwells largely on development of academic skills and investigation of process in the education of each student. The investigations that subsequently lead to contemporary practice are therefore well grounded and may or may not lead to ‘entrapment’.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

For societies that are still grappling with issues of ‘identity’ and indeed have to defend art practices on this basis, an evocation of history remains an attractive option, however shallow or opportunistic it may be.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

In the Pakistani context, both folk and traditional practices have fed artists’ work. The development of the ‘neo-miniature’ is an example of the reclamation of a historical genre, to mould it into a vehicle for expressing socio-political content alongside more personal narrative. The processes and materials found in folk forms have been explored by women artists in particular to bring ‘domestic’ arts into the realm of the contemporary. Urban crafts and crafts persons have on occasion been co-opted by artists to work collaboratively. This has included artists such as Iftikhar Dadi, Duriya Kazi, David Alesworth, Huma Mulji, and Saba Khan.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Since what is known as the ‘institution’ is missing as an active player in Pakistan, the ‘academy’ takes its place. In the last 50 years, the ‘academy’ has instigated politically engaged art and continues to do so from the relative safety it enjoys as a space of sanctity. But this phenomenon is not deeply ‘institutionalized’ i.e. it is the effort of groups of individuals who have played critical roles in the academy. The academy, like any other institution is susceptible to both commerce and politics.

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Wed 4/11/2012 4:52 PM
Nikita Yingqian Cai, Curator of Times Museum, Guangzhou


The Contemporary Art I’ve Never Done

Calvino once published in a magazine an essay called "The Short Stories I Have Never Written," regarding his own short story collection. In this essay, he states not without humor that he was tired of hearing people say how "easy" the things he wrote were, and so he decided in this collection of short stories to intersperse the word "difficult" throughout.  From this witty little joke, I could not help but think whether a few years from now someone among us might write an essay called, "The Contemporary Art I've Never Done," and whether he or she would state in the same casual and nonchalant tone: "I'm so tired of hearing people say our works are 'incomprehensible,' so I've decided to intersperse the term 'contemporary' throughout."

In China where I live, aside from being added as an adjective in front of the word art, the word "contemporary" rarely appears in other areas.  In the arts, "contemporary" is still in a state that is equated with the absurdity of "post-modernism" and is difficult to describe.  Within the academia, art history education treats Western post-war art history in one broad stroke and writings about so-called Chinese contemporary art history are defined variously by contending schools of thought.  Outside the art world, real life contemporary youths, without realizing it, are using their intuition and the “modernist legacy” accumulated by their parents' generation to fumblingly and ineptly imagine and shape "contemporary;” for most of the older generation who still have some memory of the “pre-contemporary,” (1) in comparison to the modernist passion for speed and dream of progress, “contemporary” is obviously too complicated and ambiguous.  Most deadly of all, it leads you nowhere. "Contemporary" is at best a performance riddled with risks; incapable of self-interpretation, it turns to the arts and becomes dependent on it. Therefore, art institutions face the following dilemma: should art be used to illustrate the contemporary, or should the contemporary be used to infuse art? If neither is feasible, where do the questions lie for this quandary called "the contemporary"?

I’m writing this article in 2012, which is 79 years after Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, espoused his theory of “time submarine” in 1933.  At that time, the tail of the "submarine" traced back to Goya, Ingres and Constable of the 19th century, while its head ended in the period of 1875-1925. In 1941, Barr again updated the scope of MoMA’s collection, with its tail being pushed back to Cezanne, Van Gogh and Seurat and its head extending to the works of contemporary artists in the United States and Mexico from 1900-1950.  From today's point of view, not only is Barr's "contemporary" (2) already "modern," but his proposal can completely be viewed as conservative considering that nowadays the buzz about contemporary art "speculation" is nothing more than looking back over a nine years span of time! No wonder we are nostalgic for modernism; many important modernist concepts fearlessly delineated the landscape for the span of a century, whereas the "contemporary" now is so volatile, so unpredictable, to the point that I now need to begin imagining “the contemporary art I have never done.”

According to its most fundamental definition, contemporary history is the history of the living; from this perspective, contemporaneity should seemingly be a universal state. However, I have heard more than once from my Chinese colleagues who state that "contemporary" is a Western concept and so we should renounce altogether using contemporary art as a term. It’s unclear to me as to when "contemporary" became "Western" – maybe because this love-hate relationship people have had for modernism had been written about to death, at which point someone took a stand for starting another chapter (the problem being that we once again had missed the opportunity to be the first to initiate this discourse) but with a new set of rules: "From now on, everyone can say whatever he or she wants; there are no winners or losers." ---- The outcome of this no-winners/no-losers rule is even more depressing than dying on a battlefield. Thus we must rewrite a new beginning, rewrite a new history volume, and using our own language…. 

Once again this reminds us just how limited the imagination of the so-called "art world" is.

In 2009, in the magazine October, in response to questions posed about the "contemporary" by Hal Foster, Julia Bryan-Wilson mentioned: the U.S. Department of Energy initiated a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in 2004 designed to bury radioactive waste in a New Mexico landfill.  They commissioned the construction of a warning sign alerting people for the next ten thousand years that they should not dig at this site. The sentence on the sign was given in seven languages, while leaving room for interpretation and translations in anticipation of the evolution of written languages in the next ten centuries. I believe that most of the people who wish to start another chapter all hope that one day the entire world can read and understand “our” language; these people, however, suffer from a form of amnesia and short-sightedness: not only is the nationalistic "we" a fairly recent concept in history, but it also will not necessarily be the only form of social organization in the future.  In the face of the information age and online culture, whether a written language can endure the test of time for thousands of years is out of our hands. The reason why “contemporary” makes people despondent is because even if a new beginning and a new history volume are rewritten, such a history volume is still but one among countless histories.  We cannot even guarantee that future generations who read history will use the same language as we do; the only thing we can do is to leave room for future interpretation and translation. If Alfred Barr’s “time submarine” theory still retains any referential meaning today, it resides in his vivid imagining of “art” as a submarine.  This “submarine” is sensitive to its neighboring water territory, constantly on the move, and using its length to measure the distance of time. In addition, with the help of its torpedoes, it clearly understand that it is unlikely to be the only player in this vast ocean; in order to avoid colliding into others and meet the same fatal end, it also requires the use of a mutually intelligible language.

As Calvino continues in his short piece, "localism will always be one step behind history. I am interested in things that keep pace with history, yet at the same time they also emerge from their own roots, have a foothold on a piece land, and possess a certain kind of experience.... In order to avoid becoming a stage backdrop made of paper, the imagination must be full of memories, of necessity, in short, full of reality.” (3) Some people uphold China but reject the contemporary; some people embrace the contemporary but rewrite China; some people still believe “Chinese Contemporary Art” exists, while some people repeatedly use "Contemporary Art of China” begrudgingly.  More than anything, I hope that what I am now involved in is only “Contemporary Art in China." With the unbearable urgency experienced from many different fronts, the last thing art institutions should do is to demarcate or surrender a piece of land and a certain kind of experience by hastily building one “stage made of paper” after another.  “Time submarine," this seemingly broad definition, also has its obvious shortcomings; it conceals an underlying logic of using art museum collections as cultural power and capital.  In the base environment monopolized by commercial capitalism and state ideology, it becomes a sharp knife that instantly removes diversity. In the Chinese context, those institutional concepts that construe what it means to be "contemporary” even more aggressively, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) or the Kunsthalle, are almost completely unknown.  "Collections" become the only hard currency legitimizing art institutions; any other constructs all seem to be short of authenticity and ambition. To art practitioners and institutions, "contemporary" constantly reminds us that the ephemeral and the historical are all but two forms of recollection and that this kind of recollection is destined to be innumerable and in perpetual renewal. Art (institution) does not just reenact or reaffirm what is already there, more importantly it should perform or speculate what has yet to be seen. Having done "contemporary art" or not, "contemporary" is always in a state of persistently being written about and it will never be possible that we are the only ones writing about it.  


(1) “Modernism” and “pre-contemporary” used here are just metaphors for the current state and ideals of society; according to a strict definition of “contemporary,” recollections of anyone who is still living can only be categorized as a kind of “contemporary recollection.”
(2) MoMA and Alfred Barr still used the term “modern,” while the concept of his “time submarine” is in fact closer to our understanding of “the contemporary” now.  This kind of “American” influence can still be seen in the work of some Chinese translators today. “当代艺术” is often translated as “modern art” rather than “contemporary art.”
(3) From “The Short Stories I Have Never Written,” by Italo Calvino, Short Story Collection, Part I (Yilin Press).

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Fri 4/13/2012 9:49 PM
Parul Dave Mukherji, Professor at the Department of Visual Studies, School of the Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

State art institutions have largely shown apathy towards contemporary art in India. It is only very recently when they have come under the scanner from various quarters that the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi  has risen up to the challenge of updating its image and institutional role. This is attested by the current exhibition at the NGMA of Rebecca Horn’s works and an Anish Kapoor retrospective show last year in Delhi and Mumbai. In the absence of major support from state art institutions, the onus has fallen on private art collectors to make their collections accessible to the public. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Devi Art Foundation have been playing a critical role in collecting, displaying and disseminating interest in contemporary art through curated shows, symposiums and public lectures.

Recently, the Bhau Dhaji Lad museum in Mumbai, which has an impressive art and craft collection dating to colonial times, has opened its doors to contemporary art and some contemporary artists have interacted with this space, located their practice with the museum context (L N Tallur), and produced interactive works in form of installations and performance art (Sudarshan Shetty, Nikhil Chopra). Individual art practice today has also given way to art collectives in which artists take on macro issues of globalization, ecology and their impact on day to day life and understand the local issues as intersecting with the global ones.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Increasingly artists in India are occupying the space of visual culture by embracing the self description of an ethnographer. It is part of their postcolonial condition that they engage with the world through a double consciousness and inhabit their practices as cultural outsiders and insiders. At times, they run the risk of ‘NGO’isation of their work as they express their desires to work alongside a community and bridge the gap between themselves as metropolitan artists and rural craftsmen in villages. The other risk that they tend to lapse into is self-exoticization and narcissism. In the case of the former risk, ‘aesthetics’ becomes a fraught issue and gets severely compromised. In the current climate, many artists concentrate on the region in which they are located as a means to critiquing the framework of the national modern which is severely under contestation. Periphery, as an example, is a media collective based in the Northeast of India that squarely engages with the marginalization of this region under the national modern and interacts with the local community and its concerns.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

The contemporary is too heterogeneous to be captured by a trope. In fact, its multi-faceted extensiveness and network of dissemination, which is media-based, is better suited to capture space than time. If temporality matters, its terms have radically changed and some contemporary artists have arrived at radical redefinition of the problem of time. It is they who can offer lessons to art historians and art critics about how to get out of the double bind of tradition and modernity, centre and marginality that the latter are caught in.

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?

Historicity is being deeply contested today with the withering away of the framework of the national modern and territoriality entering into its liquid stage. The media and the Internet have blurred boundaries of nation states as has the internationalization of labour and ecology. The best way to understand the shift is by attending to the primacy attached to the question of the archive that seems to have replaced the question of history.

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

While contemporary metropolitan artists are waking up to the issue of the vernacular and some have tried to form collaborations with rural artists, they are not on the same page with folk and traditional artists. Collaborations across these groups are brave attempts but they are steeped in paternalism. Unlike Australia, where aboriginal artists may share the same space in a contemporary gallery as a result of long struggle [for inclusion] by aboriginal artists, in India, the situation has been different on the account of colonialism. Cultural nationalists from elite classes long romanticized folk and traditional art practices and appropriated their forms, and yet the folk and traditional artists do not have the same access to the art world.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

To some extent, the burgeoning art market has shrunk the space for politically engaged art. Or rather identity politics yields to commoditization and acquiesces to the art market in such a way that social marginality is flaunted by artists to gain attention. A more vibrant political art emanates not so much as an expression of individual agency but as part of artists’ collectivity in which artist’s subjectivity gets shaped by wider political concerns. But these see themselves as alternative practices and distance them from art industry or rather negotiate with the latter without compromising their political content.

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Sun 4/15/2012 4:01 PM
Heejin Kim, Director of art space pool, Seoul


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

Who can “define” contemporary art and what is meant by “defining” it? No definition is definite and is just in the process of constitution. The process of the constitution of meaning itself is in constant flux, which is differently conceived and interpreted by who sees it from what angle.

This question in fact entails a series of philosophical questions on what one sees and how one sees the production process of meaning. I tend to see various aspects and processes of production, signification, distribution, and interpretation of meaning as crucial constituents of a definition. Simply I cannot automatically accept a sole definition as absolute and pre-determined.

In this regard, I see the institution’s role in constituting contemporary art as obviously partial, and it should be partial. An indexical, referential role would be a realistic answer.

This doesn’t mean that an institution is away from the process of meaning production. It should be an active player/constituent of the definition making. It should specify what kind of meaning it aims to produce and remain open for the evolution of that meaning. A very dedicated but generous role, I should say. So it’s almost pathetic to see a big public museum pretend to govern and dictate a certain definition of contemporary art to the general public. Public art institutions should draw its audiences in to be engaged in the process of the production of meaning. To engage audiences in the process, public art institutions should devise super smart strategies that pose questions on what contemporary art could be, rather than what it is.

If an institution succeeds in specifying what kind of meaning it wants to propose, individuals, whether artists or curators, have the right to choose their positions in relation to the institution’s practice. An interesting index/frame of reference triggers much more dedicated responses for sure. But whether an individual practitioner chooses to visually manifest or formally articulate the reference is his/her decision. I don’t think it’s possible for an individual practitioner to work without the awareness of institutional practices.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradign of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Recently the big paradigm of visual culture in my local context is heavily determined by the music entertainment business branded as Korean Wave, which is arguably an urban sleek commercial sexist product. There are many other alternative paradigms ongoing like the sustenance of the everyday vernacular, restoration of folk traditions, excavation of ancient mythology, and even amateurish self-farming, etc. But these minor paradigms cannot compete with the Korean Wave industry sponsored by the State as a major exportation and tourist item. What scares me about the Korean Wave paradigm is that it is a fictitious, false imagery, rooted in nowhere and nobody, and no wonder; it is sheer emptiness. The contemporary local art scene has been wise enough to distance itself from the Korean Wave mechanism, but the press & media seem to be questioning whether contemporary art can sustain itself outside of its influence. Simply put, contemporary art in the local context, whether be it fine art or applied art, may look isolated (even delayed by some) from the overriding paradigm of visual culture, but it still depends on who sees it from what perspective. Architecture, design, film, and image productions are coming up as counter-powers of visual culture, I think.

The status of art history and contemporary art criticism in this local context is almost hopeless, I should say. Nothing can be more detrimental than internal problems within each discipline. Internal problems are half structural, half man-made. Structural problems in part reflect the macro-structural problems of politics and economy.

I think contemporary art institutions and individual practices in the field have already quite given up about the mortified discipline of art history and art criticism for a long time. But, I think their absence is still our loss in the end. That’s why some art institutions have designated intentional efforts to archive and commission criticism. Still it’s pathetic that schools don’t even pick up what’s been triggered in the field.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

In my local context, contemporary culture itself isn’t a big enough deal to produce a heavy “trope” in general. In a way, we are fortunately not entrapped by any heavy trope of the contemporary. As was manifested in this recent election (4.11) for a national assembly, this nation has a considerable power presence of the pre-modern and modern generation. Contemporaries are minor!

Purely as a repulsive gesture to the pre-modern and modern, there are some pretentious gestures of self-conscious “contemporary”, if that is what you mean by the “trope” of contemporary. Some “contemporary” modes are decorated, elaborated, sampled and reproduced by popular lifestyle magazines. It is true that such tropes of the contemporary are adopted and appropriated quickly in appearance, and reproduced quickly as conventionalized modes of the contemporary. Some critics deplore such mindless importation of “exotic” contemporariness that have been repeated from the modernization process in Korea. I think any contemporary trope in my local context cannot be the object of such harsh criticism yet, because it is half from a collective desire to escape from pre-modern social absurdities, and half from social naiveté that has lost its grip on reality, which itself takes time. The trope is still at an innocent level, I should say.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

I think Korea is one of the regions that has territoriality as a strong & valid denominator in inscribing, and therefore, operating temporality and historicity. Major governing principles of the society are still ethno-centric nationalism, anti-communism, national security, and Confucianism, most of which are defined by its relation to land and territory. In defining principles of subjects, sovereignty, social norms, labor, relationships and memory, simply put, in framing the structure of any discourse, there is a strong factor of territory. I think this is never a question of right or wrong, whether you like it or not, because North Korea is there as a question of not-easy-to-solve. The question is how do you translate this reality in your mind-set? If you set North Korea in a defensive frame, you become stuck in the self-enclosed half. Whenever there comes a threat of North Korea, there rises the same intense nationalism in South Korea. The funny thing is that it is not each individual who is benefitted or protected by this nationalism. It is only the virtual Nation-State. It isn’t nationalism if it gets empowered by kicking out social minorities.

As a way to excavate diverse beliefs and interpretations of territoriality, some artists have explored folk traditions and local mythologies. Broaden a horizon. No wonder folk traditions are enriched with alien cultural encounters. Restoring diversity, instead of securing authenticity, is what artists are observing from folk traditional practices. Some artists are drawn to folk traditions by their archetypal fusion of secular holiness.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

To begin with, institutions in Asia don’t seem to “rise” enough to endanger any art practices. More accurately put, it is not institutions, but the bureaucratic system that matters. Institutions in Asia should first have a professional curatorship to be qualified as “institutions.”

There’s nothing like neutral bureaucratic administrators in Asia yet. Bureaucracy is not just an administrative system, but a politicized system because administrators are structurally susceptible to political doctrine and fordist industrial evaluation of art like everywhere in fact. The current political doctrine of any regime is the neoliberalist economy. Ideological censoring lingers there yet, but most clearly, neoliberalist institutions simply burn out practitioners and artists. Neoliberalist market economies, especially one that has no other social welfare nor complementary measures, chokes any kind of art practice.

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Mon 4/16/2012 8:33 AM
Yeung Yang, Director of Soundpocket in Hong Kong


What could put contemporary art under threat? Not institutions per se, but institutions that forget how they come into being and why they are needed in the first place. Let me explain via a detour.

I currently work full-time in an institution of higher education. Among co-workers in the programme that I teach, there has been a lot of talk about the mandate of the university as an institution. We discuss a lot the role the university plays or has stopped playing in the education of virtues and values. These issues are the crux of our teaching and learning, not an add-on. The university, like any other, has a mission statement laying out its mandate. When the university relates to other institutions as a single unit, the mission statement becomes a quick reference. It is a matter of administration. But when the university relates to its body of members – staff, teachers, students, the mandate is a matter of teaching, learning, debating, and examining values and virtues as something we all contribute to and are a part of. It is to do with morals, or the right thing to do. My point is that the institution as an administration that exercises a set of procedures in a systematic way must be distinguished from the individuals within who make the institution possible in the first place. The institution needs to exist because there is primarily a tacit agreement that coming together and being associated with each other make us better; it helps us do the right thing. Institutions receive a mandate from their members – be they citizens of an entire society, stakeholders sharing common values etc. – to exercise their wills, not the other way round. How they have become reversed and mixed up, I do not know.

Another institution I relate to, though in a different capacity, is the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), which has been managing the grant that supports soundpocket (1) since 2009. We have had to put its logo and the phrase “supported by” in projects we do. For us, this phrase isn’t just an empty label. It is an acknowledgement of our public nature, which is as important and pertinent as what we do. As we work, we also ask the question of the public and its concerns that we address. This is a matter of accountability that rests with any institution with a public mandate. When and how this may get lost in the speed of production and the imperative to stop thinking, I do not know.

In “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary’”, Wu Hung says that the term “contemporary art” in the domestic sphere of China “conveys a strong sense of avant-gardism and signifies a range of experiments that aspire to challenge established art institutions, systems, and forms.” (2) I think Hong Kong is in a similar situation. My question is, if avant-gardism comes under too much pressure to justify or defend its value – that is, when the contemporary comes before the art, would it be exaggerated and become an attitude and gesture to lose sight of what could be the common interest that it always already addresses – that of doing justice to even the most singular operation, practice, idiosyncrasy etc.?

If the power of contemporary art is in the flexible and open engagement with and intervention in all sorts of situations, it can only co-arise with them in contexts. Sometimes, a project wanting to be contemporary as avant-gardist may end up not being so. Sometimes, a project that does not claim the contemporary becomes so by accident. If avant-gardism needs structural support – which is valued for being stable, consistent and sustainable, it takes primarily not a category in grant policies that sets aside cash for it, but a commitment from all of us to safeguard freedom and equality. By extension, an institution as a way we have chosen to come together can contribute to the definition of contemporary art by first defining it in relation to the society in which it stands and the public with which it stands. This sense of “defining” is more like clearing the way for a house before building it.

At this point, I would like to bring M+ into the picture. Lars Nittve’s presentation on April 11, 2012 emphasized the “public ethos” of the new museum. It is a fresh and important start. Not that it is new, but that it contextualizes what the claim “for Hong Kong people” means. The mentioning was brief, but it was enough to put legitimacy of its power into the picture. If the pledge on education were also to be pursued as Nittve suggested, as a core and not derivative value of the art and the programming, the education would include how the people of Hong Kong are to learn that they, too, are masters of the museum. I see this as Nittve’s call for public attention and engagement. I also see this as Nittve’s commitment to accountability, which is welcoming in the current political climate.

What interested me about his presentation was also what he did not address much – “contemporary art”. M+ was profiled as a “new museum of visual culture” that specialized in visual art. While Nittve offered refreshing ideas on display, he spoke little about how the value of the collection of M+ would be determined – not just its monetary value, but also cultural value, to align its mission with collecting visual culture, which is by no means innocent. Culture collected institutionally was the norm during colonial times. “Savage” bodies in the colonies were photographed and studied in the name of science. Cultural artifacts were interpreted to fit the colonists’ preconception of the culture while claimed to be “authentic” representations. From anthropological perspectives, which have contributed much to the theorizing of culture, visual culture as a field of study makes such technologies of visualization as photography, film, and even writing a central part of the study. These technologies are theorized as apparatuses of power embedded in institutional practices. For instance, Jay Ruby argues that the study of anthropological cinema is the study of particular ways of looking at culture and its communication, and the historical and theoretical contexts of the issues involved. (3) From the perspectives of Cultural Studies, from which the field of Visual Culture Studies emerged and which is today taught in several higher education institutions in Hong Kong (4), visual culture also embodies critiques of the ways of seeing. In the light, two issues emerge for M+: firstly, how can the idea of “collecting” and its power-laden history be opened up for critical examination, too? And secondly, how can the “contemporary” that is dependent on contexts and sites of production be collected when the act of collecting is opened up? When the kind of critique that has made visual culture studies is subjected to standardized institutional policies of collecting that are not put into question, any museum claiming to be new and contemporary could only become reactionary.

There is one further point about value I would like to make. Nittve talked about good artists from Hong Kong as being “international” rather than “local”. The term “international” was used to suggest a certain kind of value that was not clearly articulated in the presentation. The term “local” was also used to suggest another kind of value that, again, was not clearly articulated. To be fair, Nittve did add that the value of Hong Kong art would be understood in its local specificity, but there was also the suggestion that the “local” was irrelevant to defining good artists. I think Nittve’s idea was that if we are serious about being globally responsible for each other, we ought to do better than relying on the opposition between “local” and “international”. This is an important message. But with all the damage that capital without national borders has done to ways of life that value reciprocity (above ego-centric interests), mutual assistance (above self-help), and deep time (above speed) on a person-to-person level, it is understandable that some may react to Nittve’s affirmation of the international as an imperative to elevate the artists of Hong Kong to a language and other ways of circulating art from Hong Kong that may flatten their meanings. I am not saying Nittve’s is doing any of this. I am saying that there is still a need to theorize what it is about the value of artists from Hong Kong that M+ proposes to articulate and communicate on the institutional level.

For those of use who move in and out of institutions, we must not rely solely on artists to be contemporary. Organizations and practices need to be contemporary, too: be flexible and responsive to change, be critical and ingenious. How can these be achieved? Don't submit to pressure for production. Take time to think, even in an emergency (5). We must be self-conscious, but not self-consciously contemporary. Are we trapped by the trope of the contemporary? This is one of the questions that initiated this discussion. Perhaps, but this is when we can start planning an escape. To evaluate escapism negatively, according to Italo Calvino, is absurd, for in the ordinary language that traps us, writing for him is always a form of escapism. This escape would best be documented, as stipulated by the spirit of an archives law that is yet to be in place in Hong Kong, so that the public ethos of the museum will be substantiated and remain active. The day may even come that the question of contemporary art is relieved of the burden to mean for being such a well taken way of life.

This discussion is originally initiated by a need to put the “contemporary” as a question of the contemporary first, that is, a question of priority. Sometimes, questions of priority lead to things being broken up or excessively inflated. However, when they involve morals, they could become extremely important: What is the principle of our action? What is the right thing to do? It is in this light that I think the idea of contemporary as contemporary with, which has been coined by many before, is worth citing again. “With” is a word that suggests a combination, a union, even a shifting of a centredness (perhaps from the self) to embrace something new or different. “Contemporary with” is really a “being-with”, which is in listening to each other and participating in the give and take of discussion. “Being-with” is also to be at peace with oneself, to be without internal conflicts, without which being at peace with others would make no sense.


(1) Soundpocket was founded in 2008. See soundpocket.org.hk.
(2) Wu, Hung. (2008) Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art, Beijing: Time Zone 8 Limited.
(3) Ruby, Jay. (2000) Picturing Culture, Explorations of Film and Anthropology, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
(4) The Chinese University of Hong Kong offers this as an MA program with the required courses listed as Contemporary Arts & Cultural Interactivity, Visual Culture Theory, Visual Research Methods, Cultural Studies in Film and Video. http://www.crs.cuhk.edu.hk/en/programme HKU Department of Comparative Literature offers courses in five streams. One of them is Film, Visual, and New Media Studies. http://www0.hku.hk/complit/courses/courses.htm Lingnan University has its Visual Studies within the Philosophy Department. http://www.ln.edu.hk/visual/about.php It would surely contribute to further research to consider the exact reading lists offered in the courses.
(5) This is an idea inspired deeply by Elaine Scarry’s book Thinking in an Emergency, in which she argues that modern government’s “claim of emergency” undermines democracy. She shows how, instead, habits of thinking play a crucial role in preparing for such emergencies as a nuclear war. In the case of the Swiss Shelter System, for instance, Swiss law requires that nuclear shelters by built by all, a duty that arises from the right to the equality of survival. See Thinking in an Emergency. (2010) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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Wed 4/18/2012 11:57 AM
Tapati Guha Thakurta, Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta


I will structure my comment taking up three key themes raises in the questionnaire –

(i) the importance of institutional sites in defining contemporary art practice

(ii) the paradigm of contemporary ‘visual culture’ vis-à-vis that of contemporary ‘art’

(iii) the critical tropes of the regional and the vernacular

(i) On the first theme - let me begin with a historical reflection on the way the emergence of modern art activity in India was grounded in the formation of a professional sphere of training, interpretation, and the public reception of art. The maturing of the new identities of the ‘modern’ and the ‘national’ in Indian art, from the late 19th into the early and mid 20th century, runs parallel to the history of private and formal art education in the art schools of British India, the spread of salons and art societies, the rise of art criticism and illustrated art journals, and the coming together of artists, critics, connoisseurs, collectors and an initiated art public. The move away from the colonial institutions to indigenous non-state initiatives and nationalist and political platforms (like, for instance, the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta in 1907, or the Anti-Fascist Artists and Writers’ Association in 1942) shaped the main grounds for nurturing the periods’ changing configurations of ‘modern’, ‘modernist’, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘progressive’ art activity. We can trace in parallel the spread of a series of new professional careers in art, that will take us from the livelihoods of Academic portrait, landscape or mythological painters, to the growing trans-regional schools of ‘Indian-style’ painters who during the 1920s and 30s moved from Bengal to art schools all over the subcontinent, to a diverse range of careers in commercial art, design and publicities, linking the circuits of art school training with the booming print industry and the emergent worlds of theatre, film and advertising. It is out of these spreading professional livelihoods that the vocation of the full-time independent creative artist would be continually distilled, reified and reinvented. As I have argued in my earlier writing, these institutional formations become central in defining the social sites of ‘modern’ art practices. They also serve, in an important way, to separate out their practitioners and publics from those of both earlier and contemporary circuits of aristocratic and royal patronage in India, and from the circuits of popular, commercial and mass picture productions.

This kind of historical background notates what the questionnaire calls the markings of ‘temporality’ and ‘historicity’ that define the entity called ‘modern India’ and help situate it within an Asian and global framework of the ‘contemporary’. It gives us a vantage point from which to survey the changed institutional thrusts and dimensions of modern art practices in post-Independence and contemporary India. One major shift that connotes the move from the ‘modern’ to the ‘contemporary’ in the Indian art scene is the dissipation of state patronage and the boom in private art galleries, corporate investments in art, and the spectacular careers of 20th century Indian art in international art auctions and the art market. Geeta Kapur’s setting apart of the ‘contemporary’ from the earlier trajectories of high modernisms and her aligning of the new category with a set of individual and collective artistic articulations of the 1980s can be rethought here. Perhaps one important way to periodize the ‘contemporary’ in Indian art history and mark its ruptures with the past is to foreground the powers of new commercial and corporate interventions in art on a national and global level, during the late 1990s and 2000s – and to see how various orders of alternative/critical art practice are either willingly negotiating or are getting caught in the vortex of this all-powerful privatized ‘institutional’ domain. One would have to investigate in what ways the ‘age’ of the ’contemporary’ in Indian art has become synonymous with the era of economic liberalization and the workings of global capital.

The 1950s, 60s and 70s saw the central role of state institutions (like the NGMA and the Lalit Kala Akademi) in promoting the nation’s and the region’s modern art through collecting, exhibiting, workshops, publications, public commissions, competitions and awards, By contrast, the past three decades has seen that role almost entirely taken over by private entrepreneurs, gallery owners and art collectors. I do not have the expertise to analyze all that is entailed in the new range of privatized and globalised art initiatives that dominates today’s worlds of contemporary practice. Nor would I dismiss the renewed and reactivated agency of the state in promoting the nation’s modern art on a global forum. The signal role played by an institution like the NGMA, New Delhi, in recent years in profiling the modernist artistic legacy of Santiniketan (through its mega-exhibitions of Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Ramkinkar Baij) or of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, in facilitating such exhibitions, and in sponsoring the international travels and the comprehensive publication of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth) are important cases in instance. My suggestion would be to closely research these different institutional sites of promotion of contemporary Indian art – to see how the ‘national’ gets freshly framed through the lens of the global and corporate, how this institutional sphere continually inflects individual practice, and how it becomes constitutive of the ‘contemporary’.

(ii) On the second theme - I would like to stress the imperatives of opening up the nomenclature of the ‘contemporary’ from these defined circuits of art practice to a broader field of popular, everyday visual production. What is at stake here is not only a recasting of the disciplinary concerns of art history and the positioning of the privileged object of ‘art’ within a broader domain of ‘visual culture’. What this also pushes us to consider is a series of historical and contemporary contexts where these popular productions have entered the same institutional circles of collecting, exhibiting, archiving and scholarly research. Like the objects of modern and contemporary Indian art, various genres of ‘popular’ imagery – ranging from 19th century Kalighat painting and mythological picture-prints to latter day calendar art, film posters, commercial advertisements or studio photographs – are today engaging the discerning attentions of collectors and connoisseurs, scholars and curators, and emerging as the subjects of exhibition catalogues and the academic book industry. Furthermore, it is also crucial to underline the extent to each which these popular genres – whether they be the works of folk and tribal artists or of calendar and poster painters or those who design advertisements, pavilions and street publicities – can lay claims to the identity of the ‘contemporary’ in terms of their new themes, styles and imaging technologies. So, for instance, if the forms of commercial advertising are today partaking of high-end digital media and graphic design and transforming the visual topographies of cities, the folk artists of Medinipur (Bengal), Madhubani (Bihar) or Bastar (Chattisgarh) are among the many who have evolved a resonantly ‘contemporary’ identity over different time periods and have emerged into new frames of national and global visibility in art galleries and international art collections. I have been researching a contemporary festival phenomenon in the city of Calcutta, where the pavilions, tableaux and images created for the Durga Puja celebrations every autumn have taken on the dimensions and pride of public art productions, inviting corporate sponsorship and new kinds of creative personnel and spectators. There is a strong case to be made for expanding and inflecting the field of ‘contemporary’ art to include these kinds of ephemeral public art endeavours – in order to test how such inclusions and extensions unsettle the given notions not just of the ‘contemporary’ but of ‘art’ itself. To open out the field of the ‘contemporary’ into this diverse arena of productions that fall under the rubric of ‘visual culture’ is not to dissolve the exclusivities and hierarchies that constitute the more elect circuit of ‘art’ practices. Rather, the purpose is to show how the practices, that carry the prestige of the name of contemporary ‘art’, have needed to continually shore their own grounds vis-à-vis these many other competing and complementary worlds of public and popular visual production.


(iii) This brings me to my third theme – one of the most urgent thrusts of the ‘contemporary’ in Indian art history lies in disaggregating the canon of the ‘national modern’ and turning the focus on different historical configurations of the ‘regional’ and ‘vernacular’ art practices. It could well be argued, here, that the kinds of histories that have constituted the narrative of the ‘national’ in modern Indian art from the late 19th through the 20th century have always stemmed from the locations of the region and have carried in them the distinct markers of the provincial. In different phases of Indian art history - the art movement spearheaded by Abanindranath Tagore in Calcutta during the first two decades of the 20th century, the art of Santiniketan Kala Bhavan during the 1930s and 40s, the art of the Bombay Progressives in the post Independence years, or the art community of MS University of Baroda during the 1970s and 80s, offer prime instances of the way certain ‘regions’ and ‘schools’ came to effectively stand in for the nation. It is the claims of these artists and art centres to represent/embody the ‘national’ which came to relegate a series of other modern art histories emerging out of other Indian courts, cities and non-metropolitan locations, to the status of the ‘regional’ and ‘provincial’. These other histories of 20th century modernities and modernisms in Indian art are now gradually emerging out of their provincial circuits into newer sites of scholarship. I think, along with the trope of the ‘regional’, the other productive category to bring in our discussions on the ‘contemporary’ would be that of the ‘vernacular’. The invitation would be to consider the complex ways in which this category is always tied to the matrix of region and territory but also transcends these to generate its own global aspirations and produces trends that scholars are calling ‘vernacular cosmopolitanisms’.  The ‘vernacular’ in India’s modern and contemporary visual cultures would have its basis in a variety of traditional ritual arts, folk and tribal art styles, historical schools of painting, sculpture and architecture, also in late 19th and early 20th century lineages of book illustration, cover designs, commercial art and a gamut of local print and literary references (as, for instance, in Bengal). But it is not reducible or easily assimilated to any single cluster of these many idioms on which it thrives. It will be instructive to look into how notions of the ‘vernacular’ have been transformed over time and how ‘vernacular’ identities have consciously pitched themselves into the arena of ‘contemporary’ art in different urban settings, even as they remain separated from the more elect circles of national and global. 

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Mon 4/23/2012 11:03 PM
Karen Smith, Curator and critic specializing in contemporary art in China


In the 1990s, institutions in China were still very formal organizations; the academies, their exhibition halls; artists’ associations and municipal museums, which were rather austere and restrictive—especially in light of events surrounding the China/Avant Garde exhibition (the first national survey of ’85 New Wave art) in Beijing in February 1989, when a gun was fired into an artwork. But although these very public spaces became closed to contemporary art for a while, forging the impression that what was contemporary in art occurred in specifically non-sanctioned spaces, be that public (university halls, shopping plazas, schools, parks) or private (apartments and, on occasion, diplomatic or foreign residential quarters) For this reason, in the early 1990s, one can say that almost no institutions in China had a practicable role in defining contemporary art.

That began to change when Shanghai launched a biennial in 1996. Although not progressive in the way it was in 2000, say, or as the Guangzhou Triennial would be from its beginnings in 2002, the Shanghai Biennial encouraged a reconsideration of the potential relationship between new art and a specific handful of public institutions—this included Shanghai Art Museum, the new Guangdong Museum of Art, and He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen. In terms of public reach and profile the cultural force of an institution was significantly embellished with work done at Guangdong Art Museum under Wang Huangshang, and now with his work at CAFA’s art museum, as with that of Huang Zhuan at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal launched under He Xiangning Art Museum in 2003. The work referred to here is that of planning and maintaining a strategy; a possibility that has been seen more recently in the sector of (semi-)private museums—Today Art Museum, Shanghai’s Zenda Art Museum / Himalaya Centre and the Rockbund Museum.

The development of independent institution-type spaces has been both positive and, to the outside world, occasionally misleading. The agendas of these new institutions in China are largely built on good intentions—good intentions being at once indefinable and fallible, and dominated by emotions rather than rationale. Like most aspects of “the system” in China, these institutions lack the kind of transparency (a Westerner assumes) necessary for building long-term trust in the eye of the public as well as the international art world. In terms of organization, they are often run (instituted) by a single individual who has no need of heeding the advice of a board of trustees or governors. Without a strong vision and a rationale to back it up, institutions face challenges in corralling the expectations of corporate sponsors within appropriate parameters. Having said that, and given the funding challenges that many public Western institutions are facing in these economically-challenged times, one might consider that, as these “institutions” evolve in China, and in the absence of a modern system to build upon, China’s “third” spaces, as these surely are, may well endure and succeed. Almost all artists wish to be exhibited in these spaces. They represent not only the best the system has to offer in China, to greater and lesser degrees of integrity and quality, but are also able to be extremely flexible in the use of interior space—reconfiguring, reconstructing, or redecorating to a degree impossible in most Western institutions.

How any of these museums function in China today is also related to how we define the art that is presented in them: in terms of the word “contemporary”. In China, “contemporary” has become a catch-all reference for art that ought to be progressive, as in the manner of the ’85 New Wave pioneers, and the vanguard that was, in the early 1990s, defined as the avant-garde. As time moved forward, and as succeeding generations of young artists introduced new ideas and practice into the field, the term “avant-garde” was recognized as being in appropriate and the term “contemporary” preferred in its stead. Today, it is the most convenient term for art being produced in this present age—post-modernism was never a precise fit for obvious reasons of the lack of Modernism as a contextual backdrop to a post-modern evolution—but as it is used in by critics and art writers in China, “contemporary” is not always invoked in association with a specific attitude of mind or philosophy vis-à-vis a Euro-American concept. Its use is habit; a readymade convenience, if you will, that removes the need for a writer to quantify what it is that an artist actually does. “Contemporary” does, however, refer to the ambitions and impulses that drive art at the cutting-edge end of what is being created now in China.

I have always instinctually felt that temporality and historicity are directly related to, if not entirely based on, territoriality; at least in the case of China. It was never about China being backward, just that the “avant-garde”, the new artists, came to the international world of art somewhat late and had some catching up to do in terms of practice: Europe and America had had an almost unbroken century under their belt by this [Chinese] moment in the early 1980s when the reform era began, releasing China’s economy and culture from the singular ideological practice that both were under Mao, and which made it possible for artistic expression to begin anew. Richard Mann has put this variance in temporal awareness well in his book The Return of History: The End of Dreams; after all, when America became “the new world” in the twentieth century, Europe was suddenly termed “the old”, which was discussed, debated, in language that located that difference in “time”.

There have been a number of exhibitions through the past dozen or so years that have tried to explore this time lag/lapse. These include Living in Time (Berlin 1999) and the Parallel Time project produced at the academy in Hangzhou under the guidance of Xu Jiang, together with Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun. A good example of how time can be a factor in visual development—and how art history struggles with and fails to accommodate different time-zones as it were—is explored in the Getty’s recent exhibition Pacific Time. This demonstrates the obvious fact that, within specific locales, artistic and cultural development may follow divergent courses in temporal development from the mainstream pulse of “art history”. The problem is that, in today’s world, art history is far too linear to be comprehensive. Art history does remind us, however, that the world is cyclical in the rhythms of expansion and growth in civilizations and cultures; and, equally, in its retractions and renewals. For the last twenty years, China has been living this kind of flux between end of retraction and renewal. Only time can show if it has the potential to be wise or innovative or enduring.

In terms of China’s “contemporary” art, elements of folk or traditional practices tend to appear in the works of artists who are most confident in and comfortable with their practice. Why? Because for so long neither was considered cool in China—certainly not “contemporary”. Where certain folk traditions were invoked in the 1990s, the result tended towards kitsch: in the example of the Luo Brothers, which combines folk imagery [popular forms from nian hua] with that of “modern” culture, the result is utter kitsch with little to redeem it. Does that count? One has to ask because there is a terrible double standard or condescension on the part of many observers at work in regard of how folk/tradition is invoked in art, and received and discussed [praised]: obviously more directly related to “folk”, as “low” culture, than “tradition” which is viewed as belonging to “high art”. There is a lack of standards applied to appraising works where folk or traditional practices appear. But foremost, is the issue of how we define either “folk” or “tradition”, period. The latter in particular, being an ever evolving form: to which tradition do we refer? Ink, as one such “tradition”, is an entirely separate issue: its practice seems to be self-defeating and self-abnegating on so many levels where those involved struggle to resolve issues of modernity within ink expression and are swift to dismiss the practice of “contemporary” artists for experimental work with the medium. This is one area in which the debate about “tradition”, “practice” and “technique” has yet to break free of conservative or established parameters:  what exists outside of those parameters has no name. This seems so ironic when throughout history it is the brush painters who have been so demonstrably innovative and “avant-garde” in the exploration and refining of methodologies.

Since the focus of Ai Weiwei’s art shifted wholly towards activities that exemplify politically-engaged art, we have all been forced to rethink the meaning of art today vis-à-vis the goals any artist sets for the mode of expression they chose. The force of the market has exerted a guiding influence on the styles of many young and impressionable artists. We need to redefine what is meant by politically-engaged art when speaking of China’s “contemporary” art. The term “political” has been profusely applied to a wide range of content in art in China, based largely on surface readings of immediately obvious visual motifs, as with the proliferation of art featuring “Mao” or the symbol of the young pioneer—the red neckerchief, which occurred in the 1990s. It has long been too easy to play with such symbols but, as we know, many of those symbols were already pretty much sanctioned ahead of use in China’s “new” art. With hindsight, how much of what was promoted as political stands up to scrutiny today? How much was really politically-engaged? After all, one might argue that, in terms of the prevailing Chinese culture in the late 1970s-early 1980s, where figuration was de rigueur to the point that to depart from the “red, shining, bright” standards of all visual expression was an act of contravention of state ideology, those artists—and there were many, Zhang Wei, Zhu Jinshi, Yu Youhan, Gu Dexin, to name but a few—who engaged in abstract art were making a clear political statement; a complete refutation of all that was prescribed for them. That discussion has only just begun in China: in the 1990s, to the foreign visitor, this distinction was invisible, and abstract art thus appeared lacking in local “Chinese” characteristics. This is just one example of art in China that really was politically charged because the context was such an inalienable part of the work.

Where all that is unfolding in China today is still so relatively new, it is all part of an inevitable and necessary process. Everything has its place and its moment. Whilst we should all work to contribute, we should not be too quick to judge or damning in that judgment. Given the economic shifts in the so-called first world, we just might find that the loose and fluid approach to running cultural institutions in China is the fact of the future. Who can really say if that is good or bad: the only certainty in life, it seems, is that everything changes in time.

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Mon 4/23/2012 1:20 PM
Sohyun Anh, Curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center, Gyeonggi-do


The difficulty of defining ‘contemporary art’ or summarizing it into a few characteristics forms the premise of this argument and therefore it seems rather counterproductive to try to reconfirm the commonly accepted phenomenon here. It might, nevertheless, be interesting to consider why the term has been readily absorbed and used in the institutions of art without meeting much resistance, while, as Hal Foster pointed out in 2009, “such paradigms as ‘the neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism,’ which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand.”(1)

The concept of contemporary art has a large gap between its denotative and connotative meanings. It not only refers to ‘the art of today’ or ‘art by living artists’ in terms of general and value-free periodization, but also implies the difference from the art of past generations in an actual context. Thus, it is highly evaluative. (Here you may raise an objection that ‘art’ is in itself a value-laden term. But the adjective contemporary includes much more complex values.) This explains why so many works of art by living artists are often regarded as ‘non contemporary.’ If, at a later day, a new form of art appears and moves away from the characteristics that define contemporary art now, it might be called “historical contemporary art” that sounds as paradoxical as the expression “historical avant-garde.”

It is in this very disparity that the concept of contemporary, as most other periodizations, became a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes. Today, all works of art can de jure be, but cannot de facto be contemporary. This brought about the necessity to explain the de facto criteria for being called as such, which again led to a mobilization of all canons against the art of previous periods. As a result, contemporary works came to signify an open-ended structure that is totally disinvested of historicity, not judged by its formal features, and invites the audience’s free choice and participation in favor, not of political ideology, but of diversity. (2) However, here arises a problem. As contemporary art begins to be considered to be value-free, it is also allowed to subsume all the more values uncritically. Now that the category under that name undoubtedly exits, though ambiguous in manner, all kinds of values thrust themselves forward and claim to fall into the category. According to Barthes, a myth is transformed from a mere object of semiotic interpretation into an ideology at the very point where you neither follow nor demystify it, but just accept it as ‘being there,’ as ambiguously as it is. (3) Likewise, the term contemporary that is now used to excess to praise a new art emerging out of the old era has become an ideology, because it has never been demystified but employed only as the neutral designation of a certain period.

Then, what ideologies does ‘being contemporary’ represent? First of all, the term contemporary art is used to describe ‘art produced in the present,’ but, in a more practical sense, means ‘art consumed in the present.’ The criteria are whether a work of art is ‘taken to be contemporary’ by the institutions of art, that is, whether it is being distributed in biennales, museums, and art fairs, and by extension, whether it is thereby judged to be ‘global.’ Regardless of age, the way of consuming art influences the way of producing it. However, the problem frequently occurring in contemporary art is that this art constantly appeals to the art institutions and art market by speaking highly of its newness that is in no way new. One of the typical contradictions regarding this would be the self-orientalism in the Asian art scenes that adheres to the traditional in order to be contemporary. It sometimes creates some novel hybrids but in most cases, ends in a mixture of the most well-known icons, rather than overcomes the problems of the previous years.

Such being the case, can production, not consumption, be an alternative criterion on which to define the contemporary? Being based on production does not mean to follow in the footsteps of the rigid formalism of Greenberg and Fried. Art that is newly produced is one that tries to solve the problems raised in the time and region when and where it is produced. In other words, it contains the issues regarding the context it is created in. And this does not bring us to the conclusion that artists should work only on the issues of their own country or region. Some of the obvious examples of this could be found in Korean art.

The Korean art scene in the 1980s was divided by the two axes: the one is monochrome painting and the other is the so-called Minjung Art (people’s art) that protested against Korea’s military dictatorship regime. In the 1990s, artists began to look for a ‘new’ art that would be able to go beyond the indifference to reality of monochrome painting and the direct and raw political message of Minjung Art. It is around this time that Korean artists who had lived and worked abroad brought new and unprecedented tendencies into the art world of this country. For example, Yiso Bahc was an artist who was preoccupied with the chasm between two countries and between two languages. His work in which Korean transliterations of such English words as “minority” or “exotic” were coupled with photographs reminiscent of those words was not global in the least, but instead cast questions about the global. The work did not convey a political message, but in itself was highly political, for it faced up to the fact that the context it was placed in was a crack. It was a newly produced art that transcended the binary division between political and non-political art, and between the Korean and the global. Of course, Bahc’s works are also consumed in biennales and the art market. However, what makes his work contemporary (in spite of his untimely death) lies not in the fact that it is introduced in international exhibitions and events, but in the fact that it is ‘asking’ about the international. (4)

Contemporary art, not as a period designation but as an evaluative term, should not be art consumed contemporaneously, but art that is produced by artists who pose contemporary issues in the regional context they are situated in. Although it is impossible to identify common formal features of contemporary art, this art should not be an ambiguous name to call all forms of art currently consumed in the international art scene. Like the linguistic concept of the ‘shifter’ (5), the term contemporary can mean entirely different things in different contexts, but should be used as something that indicates a certain determined direction. In this sense, contemporary art is inevitably and essentially political. It is so not in the sense that it supports a particular political ideology, but in the sense that it raises questions about the conditions of our life. Contemporary art should make us go back not to political art, but to Walter Benjamin’s famous proposition—“the politicization of art.”


(1) Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130 (Fall 2009): 3.
(2) The values listed here are those that Nicolas Bourriaud described as the characteristics of the new tendencies in the artistic practice of the 1990s in his Esthétique relationnelle. However, Claire Bishop argued that the “relations” produced by relational art works are not new, as well as politically uncritical (Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, October, Fall 2004, pp.51-79.).
(3) Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Seuil, 1957, p.201.

(4) Some argue that contemporary art can be defined as art produced since the postmodern movement. According to this point of view, Bahc is not a contemporary artist, but a representative postmodern artist. This periodization is, however, based only on the frequency in use of the terminologies, not on theoretical analysis. Thus, in this text, we do not support the theory that the contemporary period was after postmodernism.
(5) Jakobson’s term “shifter” refers to the elements in language that can be understood only by reference to the context in which they are uttered, but undoubtedly indicate a movement of the discourse, like the pronouns “I” and “you.”

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Mon 4/23/2012 4:08 PM
Vidya Shivadas, Curator, researcher and writer based in Delhi

On the Contemporary

In 1949 the Government of India organized the Art Conference at Calcutta where it invited a consortium of artists and critics and asked their suggestions on art institutions and on the educative role of art for the general public. The gathering unanimously voted for the immediate setting up of a National Art Gallery even if it remained divided on whether this institution would be run by the government’s representative body or handed over to the artist community.  In the following years, until the institution finally came into being in 1954, heated debates arose on which of the nomenclatures ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ would more appropriately define the institution.

While making a case for a National Gallery of ‘Contemporary ‘Art, an editorial in Art News (a monthly newsletter published by the artist organization AIFACS) expressed the view of a section of artists and scholars like Barada Ukil and Sir James Cousins, among others: “There is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which buys up as much representative collection of avant-garde art as possible. This is on the premise that what may not be intelligible today, will be highly significant to posterity. It is a gamble but America is rich enough to afford it. In India we are still trying to be contemporary, not ultra-modern…”

Having demarcated the separate agenda for an Indian art museum as opposed to an institution like MoMA, the editorial goes on to say, “At present because of absence of allocation of funds for a separate gallery, the museum has to provide an uneasy home for a heterogeneous collection of 20th century art – Bengal school, Tagore’s ink drawings, Amrita Sher-Gil. There are also a number of artists who at present defy classification…  As soon as possible NGMA should have a specialist gallery of modern art, another gallery for more conservative schools like Bengal school, earlier Rajput and Moghul schools and Rajasthani art. Even Ravi Varma can have a place in such a gallery.” (1)

The National Gallery of ‘Modern’ Art was eventually set up in 1954 as a subordinate institution to the Department of Culture, Ministry of Education. The 1949 conference had made it clear that there were competing opinions on the mandate of cultural institutions, the spaces artists occupied and the role for cultural practice in general within the newly independent nation state.  When the Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad called for these conferences (as the first step in setting up a National Culture Trust) it was to gather expert opinions and allow for diverse members of the artist community to imagine the contours of the national art museum. But realising the difficulty of navigating through this consensus building exercise, the State overtook the project.

In the coming years, the NGMA became an insulated institution, aligning itself with a classical notion of the museum that worked retrospectively. It privileged a historicizing mode, marking the moments of origin of modern art in India through a selective list of artists (Amrita Sher Gil, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Jamini Roy in particular as the key figures). This happened as much by design as by default because of the kind of collections that fell into the hands of the state compounded by budgetary constraints and lack of effective leadership. But in the end it led to the making of the National Gallery of Modern Art that, especially in the initial decades, aligned itself with an exclusive modernist discourse. It did not enter into an active relationship with its primary constituency – the artists, and also did not end up reflecting the diversity and energy of art practice in the country.

In the early eighties the term ‘contemporary’ was again evoked to dislodge the modern’s solitary claim over the modern art museum and to counter what was seen as its exclusionary politics. The Roopankar Museum of Art at Bharat Bhavan was set up in Bhopal in 1982 by artist, critic and ideologue J Swaminathan. Here Swaminathan placed folk, tribal and modern art within the same exhibitory constellation to realize his idea of ‘contemporaniety’, thus claiming the institution for multiple simultaneous visual worlds that co-existed in India. Roopankar had short-lived success in envisioning a space that could grapple productively with the different registers of art practice and the kind of aesthetic, political and ethical issues this comingling generated. But by 1990 Swaminathan left Bharat Bhavan owing to the change of government in the state to Madhya Pradesh and subsequent reduction in funding and the museum has since lapsed into a state of inactivity.   

I touch upon these institutional references to suggest the kind of anxiety the public art institutions generated among invested parties in their ability to be truly representative of varied artistic communities and by association its diverse populace. And to also look at how the terminologies of contemporary and modern are very much implicated within these discussions.

Since the nineties we appear to have moved away from the meta-discourse of the state institutions and now seem to be part of a much more variegated scene fuelled to a large extent by the art market and private sector. We have also been inducted into a global art scene and seem well sync with its current fetishisation of the ‘contemporary’. 

Much recent debate has been centered on whether the contemporary presents a critical category that is allowing a vibrant heterogentity to come to fore or does it simply serve as a generalized term for what is current, fashionable etc.  Can we rely on its radical potentials to denote the end of the reception of art along the center-periphery imagination, to what Cuauhtémoc Medina refers to when he says it is “no longer possible to rely upon the belatedness of the South in presuming that artistic culture goes from the center to the periphery (2)”. Does it allow for the visibilisation of diverse practices and communities? Does it pay careful attention to and learn from the complex artistic strategies that come into play in different political environments.  And can it stake its independence from the operations of global capitalism and counter its homogenizing effects on culture and economies.

Away from the monolithic discourse of the national, the contemporary has made possible different kinds of alignments between individuals and institutions, between seemingly disparate temporalities and locations.  While celebrating the flexibility and the layered identity formation this suggests, I would also like to make a plea for a deeply grounded local discourse. In the context of India this is doubly important because the last two decades of globalization have unleashed unprecedented social and economic changes and we are dealing with vastly changing ground realities.

Katherine Boo refers to these altered conditions in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a close study of the Mumbai slum Annawadi. She speaks of the shortage of deeply reported accounts on how the poor are coping in the age of globalization and the need to grapple with particular individual stories so as to be able to formulate better arguments and policies. (3)

Even as the contemporary allows us to traverse geographies and makes possible broad horizontal alignments, it should equally make space for this kind of entrenched position that digs deep into the ground. It should be able to re-examine the past as well as account for the fast changing present so that particularities can emerge. The contemporary, as Agamben writes poignantly, “is he who holds his gaze firmly on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.” (4)

It is also important to note that this kind of rooted contemporary practice generates a radical, always uncertain and sometimes fraught process – and art institutions need to realize the implications of committing to it. They need to be involved in a radical process of self critique – that is not simply exhibit work but rethink the way the organization is structured, the way it frames art practice or relates to audiences. Unlike the State museum that withdrew from public claims by building an insulated institution focused on a selective historical modernism, contemporary art institutions will have to handle contentions within the art world and also outside it. As the boundaries between the art world and the world outside become more porous, the institutions will have to time and again develop productive strategies to engage with the discord.  

That this is not an easy task became evident, yet again, recently. A couple of months ago a Delhi based artist was first invited by an organization to exhibit what was widely reported as his ‘homoerotic’ photographs and then had to deal with its premature closure on the opening night following a complaint made to the police on its ‘explicit content’.  The organizers made signs of reopening the exhibition under pressure from the artistic community and other activist groups only to not follow through finally. They took close to a month to release a public statement on the issue with the artist having to field questions from the press and make hesitant statements on the matter.

What is the organisation’s commitment to an artist and his autonomous practice? How does it understand the political climate in which it is organizing its programme? How does it relate to the audience that visits these exhibitions? How does it build linkages between civil society and the artistic discourse?  How does it forge meaningful conversations within an increasingly polarized society that is targeting artistic expression and creative freedom more than ever? Art institutions must really think through some of these questions before making their ‘progressive’ gestures of showing contemporary art practice. 


(1) Editorial, Art News, a monthly bulletin of arts and crafts, Vol. XII No. 7 & 8, July-August 1959

(2) Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Contemp(t)orary: Eleven Theses.” e-flux, 2010 http://www.eflux.com/journal/contemptorary-eleven-theses/
(3) Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New Delhi: Penguin Group, 2012
(4) Agamben, Giorgio, “What is Contemporary” in What is an Apparatus and other Essays. Stanford, Stanford 2009, p 44

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Mon 4/23/2012 4:36 AM
Atreyee Gupta, Assistant Professor of Global Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth

On Territoriality, Temporality, and the Politics of Place

I teach in a university in the United States. The position that I hold, the position of an Assistant Professor of global contemporary art, is a very recent invention, less than half a decade old. This position, however, is not exceptional. Conceived at a time when the American academy is striving to reinvent itself as inclusive, diverse, and global, a number of Art and Art History departments across the country have created similar positions. These new faculty lines come in the wake of two discrete but interrelated phenomena – the debates surrounding the idea of a World Art History and the increasing visibility of “non-Western” contemporary art in the new international exhibitionary circuits. “The legitimate pressures in American universities for a multicultural curriculum will create a demand for a world art history,” David Carrier pointed out in 2008. (1) “Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Korean Americans, and Muslims in America are likely to join African Americans in demanding that their visual traditions be taught in survey classes.” (2)

If the ongoing debates regarding World Art History arose from a need to imagine a more inclusive Art History that could contend with diverse histories and visual traditions, the post-1990s proliferation of art museums, bienniales, and global exhibitions in cities such as Seoul, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and Beijing generated an equally compelling contrapuntal pressure that obdurately demanded a self-reflexive framework for comprehending the trajectories of contemporary art as they unfold across space and time. Hence the invention of a new faculty line for global contemporary art. In most cases, such positions are held by scholars focusing on contemporary art beyond Europe and North America. My own research, for instance, focuses on modern and contemporary South Asia in specific and Asia more generally. This new position then provides us with an ideal platform to provincialize the story of the global contemporary even as this story is in the process of being narrated. So far so good.

But how are we to imagine global contemporary art and how are we to narrate it? What narrative strategies will we deploy to tell this story? Temporally and chronologically situated after the passing of the modern, the very category of the contemporary continues to frustrate. “The word contemporary,” as Terry Smith points out, “has always meant more than just the plain and passing present. Its etymology, we can now see, is as rich as that of modern. The term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” (3) Indeed, the question of time has always been central to an imagination of the contemporary, as Giorgio Agamben too has noted. As Agamben writes, “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.” (4) It is precisely because of this anachronism, this disjointedness, a kind of “dys-chrony,” that one who is contemporary can clearly perceive his/her own time while keeping a distance from it. Concurrently, the word contemporary has within it an aspect of simultaneity – one that suggests an unfolding, existing, and living in the same time. The contemporary, then, is our shared time.

But, can we be contemporary together? As Smith rightly notes, in spite of a connectedness, contemporaries “subsist in a complex awareness that, given human difference, their contemporaries may not stand in relation to time as they do.” (5) The experience of the shared space of the contemporary is then paradigmatically specific and conceptually fractured, indeed multiple and plural. Its contours vary depending on the geo-political terrain, both real and metaphoric, on which we stand. If, on the one hand, our experience of the contemporary is shared and thus universal, it is, on the other hand, simultaneously specific and particular. Smith then proposes we navigate the terrain of the contemporary by pressing “radical particularism to work with and against radical generalization, to treat all the elements in the mix as antinomies.” (6) Contemporaneity lies in this very disjuncture, in Agamben’s dys-chrony or Smith’s antinomies. If we follow Agamben and Smith into this dyschronous contemporary-scape of volatile antinomies, we would indeed pass beyond the strict chronotope of the modern into the promise of a plural present. Why then does the category called contemporary art continue to frustrate?

As an Art Historian, part of my frustration lies in the temporal bracketing of contemporary art. Contemporary art is often seen as art created after the Second World War. David Hopkins, for instance, begins After Modern Art 1945-2000 with the following statement: “On 9 August an atom bomb fell on Nagasaki in Japan, bringing the Second World War to a close. During the six years of conflict an incalculable number of people lost their lives. Soon the West would become aware of the horrors of the Holocaust visited on Germany’s Jewish population. Stalin’s atrocities in Russia would also become apparent. Before long a new ideological ‘Cold War’ between Eastern Europe and America would structure international relations in the West.” (7) The bipolar politics of the Cold War then provides Hopkins with the historical and temporal frame to narrate the story of contemporary art.

The now seminal volume Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism uses an identical chronological frame. (8) Art Since 1900 is divided into two volumes, the first of which focuses on the modern, covering the period between 1900 and 1944, and the second, covering the period between 1945 and the present, focuses on the post-modern (or the antimodern) which is then followed by the contemporary. Although the authors do not unpack the implications of this division, it will be well within reason to surmise that their decision is based on a logic similar to Hopkins. That this text, yet again, reduces the “non-Western” modern to a derivative discourse, merely a reflection of a master narrative produced elsewhere, is a critique that a number of scholars have already made. (9) I remain equally troubled by the fact that the genealogy of the contemporary must begin in 1945, specifically against the backdrop of the ideological Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, privileging the West, once again, as the harbinger of the contemporary.

What does 1945 mean for Asia? Take, for instance, India. In 1945, India was still a British territory. India gained Independence only in 1947. Modernism as such – Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, and the larger discourses of Primitivism, albeit in a re-articulated and indigenized form – made its presence felt in the visual worlds of the subcontinent through the work of artists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-gil, Jamini Roy, and Ramkinkar Baij only in the 1930s. That the lure of modernism would remain strongly entrenched in India through the 1960s and the 1970s is hardly difficult to understand, especially given the Nehruvian nation-state’s larger vision of a modern progressive India. A similar trajectory can be mapped in a number of Asian contexts, for instance in Indonesia. Or even in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. In China, on the other hand, the 1980s saw the revitalization of modernism as an artistic strategy to reinsert the idea of progress into the nation’s political consciousness. Situating the genealogies of the contemporary in 1945 through the bi-polar politics of the Cold War, then, does not offer Asia a meaningful entry into the contemporary. Similarly, the year 1960, another convenient entry point into the contemporary “due to the emergence around this time of new generations of artists interested in overturning dominant modes of modernist practice” in Europe and America does not hold any special valence in Asian contexts either. (10) Modernism remained strongly entrenched in artistic and intellectual discourses in 1960s India.

Of course, this temporal bracketing, 1945 or 1960, is merely symptomatic of a larger tendency to frame the contemporary through signs that are fully legible only within a European and American context. While a substantive examination of art history texts on contemporary art is perhaps beyond the immediate purview of this response, it must be mentioned, at least in passing, that recent texts have taken as their point of departure multivalent temporal frames. (11) Yet, even within the shifting temporal frames of texts published in the last ten years, the signposts that mark the itinerary of the contemporary continue to remain largely Euro-American. (12) By this temporal bracketing, the arena of contemporary art or the time after the passing of the post-modern becomes that liminal frame where the varied trajectories of art making across the globe must be concurrently confronted as a deeply fractured and dyschronous, yet uninterrupted, intellectual field. Nonetheless, this dyschronous but uninterrupted field remains embedded within Western economic and cultural shifts.

To turn, then, to a few questions posed in the Asia Art Archive’s questionnaire: How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity? Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’? If the contemporary is indeed a shared time and we are contemporaries together, perhaps the question that we now need to insert into the debate on the contemporary and contemporaneity is this: When is the contemporary of contemporary art? This question, I believe, demands that we critically and self-reflexively mediate on the historical prepositions that are inherent to today’s conceptualizations of the contemporary. Given Art History’s commitment to History as such, only such a critical maneuver will allow us to overcome the theoretical impasse that the discipline currently faces when thinking, speaking, and writing about the new category called global contemporary art.

Let me turn to some recent critical and curatorial interjections that have radically reworked the conceptualization of contemporary art, offering a number of strategies to circumvent the theoretical and conceptual impasse that Art History is confronted with as it faces the radically dyschronous arena of global contemporary art. Take, for instance, the 2009 Tate Triennial curator Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion of the altermodern. For Bourriaud, the contemporary is an altered modern, a new modern that is constituted by alterity. Unlike older configurations of the modern, today’s altermodern is neither centered on the West nor overcompensated by regional nationalist concerns. “There are no cultural roots to sustain forms, no exact cultural base to serve as a benchmark for variations, no nucleus, no boundaries for artistic language,” Bourriaud writes. (13)

Migration, mobility, travel, and nomadism are the dots that make up the geography of Bourriaud’s altermodern. As Bourriaud states, “today’s artist, in order to arrive at precise points, takes as their starting-point global culture and no longer the reverse.” (14) By this formulation, we may argue that the centers of contemporary art are everywhere, its peripheries nowhere. Bourriaud’s altermodern is then different and distinct from the logic of de-centering Western modernism, as Okwui Enwezor has noted in an essay published in the text that accompanied the 2009 Tate Triennial, an argument that was partially restated in his response to Hal Foster’s 2009 Questionnaire on “The Contemporary”. (15) We can envisage through Enwezor’s critical reworking of Bourriaud a contemporary art system characterized by the “breakdown of cultural or locational hierarchies.” (16) Seen through Enwezor, Bourriaud’s altermodern, we must admit, may offer Asia a different entry point into the contemporary, especially given that Asian modernisms have been precariously poised at the margins of the meta-narrative of the modern.

Yet, quite paradoxically, in our desire to frame an equitable cartography for contemporary art, imagined or otherwise, we may stand to lose our claim to the local as a site of resistance to a hegemonic global. In charting the trajectory of the contemporary through migration, mobility, travel, and nomadism, we may lose sight of the everyday locational hierarchies that are strapped between the pages of our passport, those clean, crisp pages neatly bound between the folds of a cover that still bears the mark of national identity. We may forget that some passports allow for greater mobility, some do not. We may also forget that transnational mobility and nomadism is a privilege. This forgetting would be disingenuous. While the transnationalist politics of global exhibitions such as the Tate Triennial may indeed hold the promise of what Geeta Kapur calls the “no-history, no-nation, no-place phenomenon,” we lose by this very move “the politics of place – community, country, region, nation, even margin or exile.” (17)

Over the last two decades, the increase in public art funding with the emergence a number of non-government agencies in India has further strengthened this politics of place, enabling a range of contemporary practices that resist being catapulted into that liminal global of the “no-history, no-nation, no-place” variety. The 2012 community art project Ghar Pe (literally At Home) organized under the aegis of the non-profit Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action in Mumbai’s Dharavi is a case in point. (18) Ghar Pe was the result of a yearlong collaboration between the artist Nandita Kumar and a group of twenty women from Dharavi, the slum in Mumbai that is home to a million people who inhabit its single acre stretch and subsist at the peripheries of public civic services. The collaboration, which began with story-telling sessions, revolved around personal experiences of the domestic. The sessions, facilitated by Kumar and imagined as an informal intimate space where women gathered to exchange stories, gradually metamorphosed into alternative networks of kinship and solidarity beyond the family, a network that then generated local civic activism around questions of health, sanitation, and empowerment.

The yearlong story-telling session culminated in the exhibition Ghar Pe. The exhibition hall, a run down class room rented from the local high school and renovated by the Ghar Pe team, was painted turquoise – a color associated with the interiors of the many makeshift houses that jostle against each other in Dharavi’s narrow alleys. Ghar Pe, At Home, was thus markedly public even as it seemingly unfolded within the “private” space of the home. Abandoning the prevailing strategies of public art that posits the figure of the artist as the privileged interlocutor between disenfranchised subjects and the urban art sphere,Ghar Pe’s “artist-curator” Nandita Kumar recast Dharavi’s participants as the primary authors, thus privileging the local in the collaborative artistic partnership forged through the project. Installed by Kumar, each work on display was conceived and created by the participating women.

A sculptural ensemble consisting of a set of steel kitchen containers is exemplary of the larger concerns that cut across the exhibition. Familiar household objects, such containers are often part of the women’s trousseau. The participating women had created a collage consisting of photographs evocative of wedding rituals. When printed on  transparent stickers and pasted on steel kitchen containers commonly used to store grain, this collage allowed the women to address intersections between gender, consumption, and everyday violence in Dharavi. During the exhibition, the women from Dharavi introduced their works to the audience, directly engaging the audience in dialog. Standing within the space of Dharavi, the women’s address to their audience would have been immediate and sensory, transforming the home, the ghar, into a site for public civic intervention. The reciprocal relationship that was here set up among the body of the work, the body of the women, and Dharavi itself demands that we take seriously the politics of place.

How then might we locate this community art project within the larger debates on contemporary art? Following Marsha Meskimmon’s arguments on transnational feminism, cosmopolitanism, and the explorations of the domestic in contemporary art practices, we may squarely locate Ghar Pe, as an artist led community art project, within the larger transnational trajectory of feminist artistic interventions that take the domestic as a discursive site of art making. (19) The artist-curator Nandita Kumar lives and works in India and New Zealand, it might be easy to situate Ghar Pe within a global history of community art projects. Yet, to read the project solely through the cosmopolitan figure of Kumar would mean usurping the agency of Ghar Pes participants from Dharavi, negating the community of the community art project. Equally importantly, resolutely local, Ghar Pe becomes legible in and through Dharavi. If dislocated from the space of Dharavi and relocated elsewhere – in an art gallery or an international bienniale – Ghar Pe risks being recoded in quasi-anthropological and ethnographic terms, readily lending itself to a kind of armchair poverty tourism for the new global flâneur. Although, in theory the exhibition is perfectly mobile and can be reinstalled anywhere, in praxis Ghar Pe resists mobility. Deliberately entrenched within the local of Dharavi, Ghar Pethen becomes symptomatic of art practices in South Asia in specific and Asia more generally that posit a serious challenge to the liminal global of the “no-history, no-nation, no-place” variety. If we are to imagine an equitable cartography for contemporary art, it is imperative that we respond to and contend with this challenge as we realign questions of territoriality and historicity from within and beyond Asia.

Along with asking when is the contemporary of contemporary art, I propose we also reintroduce the politics of place into conceptualizations of both contemporary art and contemporaneity. It is only through such an approach that the entangled landscape of the global contemporary will become discernable, one in which multiple spatialities, temporalities, and power relations combine. I suggest we connect history to place – not to recover an imagined rootedness, the fabled local, but to think of a new ethics for transformational art practices that has emerged through the politics of locality. To use Henri Lefebvre’s words, “space as a locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of […] struggle.” (20)


(1) David Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), xxiv.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Terry Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006), 681–707, 702.
(4) Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary,” in “What is an Apparatus” and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 39-54, 40.
(5) Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” 703.
(6) Ibid., 704.
(7) David Hopkins, After Modern Art, 1945-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.
(8) Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloch, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
(9) For example, see Partha Mitter “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery,” The Art Bulletin 90:4 (2008), 531-548, 531.
(10) Amelia Jones, “Introduction: Writing Contemporary Art into History, a Paradox?” in Amelia Jones ed. A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 3-16, 3.
(11) For instance, recent texts such as Themes of Contemporary Art, Theory in Contemporary Art, and Defining Contemporary Art take the mid-1980s globalization as their point of departure. Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, ed. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, eds. Theory in Contemporary Art: Since 1985 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005); Daniel Birnbaum et. al. Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2011). Other texts begin in the 1970s, for instance Brandon Taylor, Contemporary Art: Art Since 1970 (London: Laurence King Publishers, 2012).
(12) For a historiographical study of this phenomenon, see Dan Karlholm, “Surveying Contemporary Art: Post‐War, Postmodern, and then What?” Art History 32: 4, 712–733.
(13) Nicholas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern: Tate Triennial (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), unpaginated.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Okwui Enwezor in Hal Foster el. al. eds. “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’,” October 130 (2009), 33-40; Enwezor, “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,” in Altermodern, unpaginated.
(16) Enwezor, “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,” unpaginated.
(17) Geeta Kapur, “sub Terrain: Artists Dig the Contemporary,” in Indira Chandrasekhar and Peter C. Seel, eds. Body.city: Siting Contemporary Culture in India (New Delhi and Berlin: Tulika Books and The House of World Cultures, 2003), 47-83, 47.
(18) Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, Ghar Pe was organized under the aegis of the Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action project Dekha Undekha: Conversations on Art and Health. Dekha Undekha was the first in a series of workshops that the Society has initiated in order to generate dialog between civic services administration and marginal communities in India. Conducted over a period of one year, Dekha Undekha evolved through a series of workshops with twenty women from Dharavi. Textile artist Susie Vickery, photographer Sudharak Olwe, and ceramists Anjani Khanna, Rashi Jain, and Neha Kudchadkar led the workshops. Building on these workshops and working closely with the twenty women participants from Dharavi, the artist Nandita Kumar conceptualized and curated Ghar Pe. Although the workshops that ultimately led to Ghar Pe were held over a period of one year, the two-week exhibition opened in Dharavi in February, 2012. The display consisted of art works created by the twenty women participants.
(19) See Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (New York: Routledge, 2011).
(20) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 109.

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Mon 4/23/2012 11:03 PM
June Yap, Curator
and critic based in Singapore

I am not sure if three years since Hal Foster’s questionnaire elicited its numerous thought-provoking responses I might have something ‘contemporary’ enough to contribute, other than having typed this out in the present (that rapidly is moving into the past). Foster’s lengthy question frames the discussion that ensued then, with the oppositional pairs of imagined or real, local or global, crisis or celebration, making juicy topics for the word-smithing that contemporary art has become increasingly fond of, and sometimes reliant on, myself included. Thus, I write my response somewhat tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious of what these little marks, brought upon the imagined community that reads small type about art, may do. And as a caveat, the ambiguity of the term, as it is variously employed in relation to artistic practice and artwork, is no less flagrant within this response. At the core of the original questionnaire and its responses is the apparent contradiction of contemporaneity, and art historicism as legitimating critical judgement par excellence ― where the art historical grand narrative breathes heavily down contemporary’s neck while standing awkwardly in the white cube trying to look contemporarily ‘interactive’ and connected. That the ‘contemporary’ is also assigned the task of breaking from its modern past, complicates the matter further. Yet contemporaneity, perhaps as much as post-modernism, does not function without recalling that from which it emerged. And given that this discussion and my response refers back to, and calls for, the revisiting of Foster’s questionnaire and its responses, speaks of a general inability to break with historical forebears.

In the midst of this rather uncomfortable moment (time being essentially the crux of the problem) what may possibly be suggested, is that the appearance of an art-historical turn to the contemporary is perhaps a result of art’s response to art historicism, in a dissolution of historical mooring or at least a complicating of historicism ― as in the Marxian sense, “all that is solid melts into air” ― that in turn impels a ‘contemporary art history’ that is constantly in flux. The historicisation of Asian modernities, that has contributed to the fragmentation of the historical narrative, is amongst other things, a political project, though it may be a case of the exception proving the rule. Likewise the complicating of what contemporary art may refer to in Asia, alternately aligned with, and as distinct from, other regions, has its political (and economic) purpose, even if it may be said to be a necessary one, and even if attempts at synthesizing this limited and uneven terrain is largely in vain, and too easily mired in its own contradictions, in as much as it expands the horizon of the visible. However, this failure is welcomed and exalted for its ‘contemporaneity’ in its recognition of a “constant revolution in production” (Marx).

As Miwon Kwon responded then, the “contemporaneity of histories... must be confronted simultaneously as a disjunctive yet continuous intellectual horizon.” This contiguity of correspondence and equivalence, with its opposite, is arguably contemporaneity’s character, that of “antagonisms” (Alexander Alberro via Chantal Mouffe) or “antinomies... characteristic of these times”(Terry Smith). And it is in Kwon’s end pronouncement, to “(destroy) the category of contemporary art history as it is becoming consolidated,” where the nub rubs. Contemporaneity in this sense is located in the act of response that Grant Kester hints at in his reply to Foster, writing on the possibility of observing reception to art as it is produced today, something that art history idealised as the distant regard did not have the privilege of. But this thesis on contemporary historicity, as marked by immediate and overlapping retort, would only make sense if considered in relation to the nature of the practice of ‘contemporary art’ today. The form (as old habits die hard) of ‘contemporary art’ suggested here, lies not merely in its artwork (in its formal or ephemeral guise). Rather art that becomes ‘contemporary’ in the public sense (even for a public of two), does so in an operation that involves and is entangled with the act of exhibiting, the texts of curators and art historians, negotiations with galleries, institutions and corporations, the fancies of the art market, the circulation of ever increasing biennales and other national and international platforms of presentation (and promotion), the pronouncements of art media, the reactions of an expanding geographically and technologically mobile art audience, as well as practices of discursiveness — of which this is an instance. In short, the condition that makes ‘contemporary art’, and in turn ‘contemporary art history’, is not simply the artwork, at least in this argument, but a network of relations, complicit and otherwise, and a site of contestation of what ‘the contemporary’ might mean. A condition that while ubiquitous across art practice and developments, is felt with a certain urgency in Southeast Asia and other regions that have lesser influence in central discourses and exchange. Yet this condition of agreeable disputation nevertheless harbours a lingering belief in the possibility of the efficacy of art in its meaning to life and the world (even a world of one), and a belief that this contemporaneous condition has critical historical place (and not merely aesthetic experience), that ironically ushers the return of the not-so-contemporaneous repressed Hegelian in its wake.

I am not sure I am saying anything new here, as this response turns demonstrative instead of remonstrative or instructive, even if it is ‘contemporary’. But the ambiguity that dogs the contemporary (art and art history) delights in uncertainty. Might there be a way out? The contradiction is perhaps more acute for art historians, but the outcome of this contention has farther-reaching implications. We can only hope that years from today, some future historians will be able to come up with a better term for this period (if periodisation survives this) besides ‘The Contemporary Contradiction’.  Undoubtedly at least for the present, there is value in the ‘contemporary’s’ refusal to be defined decisively, and it is possible that its indeterminism functions as does the ‘untitled’ artwork. In one grand sweep, the ‘contemporary’ encompasses heterogeneity, and simultaneously generates a series of relations ready for dispute having implied continuity and consensus. These contradictions are hard to resist. And privately they remain a guilty pleasure that if nothing else, satisfies the desire to observe and speak of art today.

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Tue 4/24/2012 6:18 AM
Hyunjin Kim, Curator and critic based in Seoul

The Contemporary

Our passage from the present to the future always stems from what remains of the past. History is not a closed book. It is an open text, which can always be reinterpreted or approached again in terms of how it is related to the present. Questions about the past propel the present forward, and contemporariness will reveal itself.

What is the contemporary? This question is much like “What is art?”, which would be an essentially contested question. Answers differ among those who constitute the contemporary, according to their varying goals and orientations. The ambiguity, uncertainty and inconsistency surrounding the concept of “the contemporary” are mostly witnessed today in a variety of competing practices that take place in the name of Contemporary Art. Indeed, today’s art scene is reminiscent of the Era of Warring States of ancient China (c. 426-221 BC), an era dominated not by a single unified power, but rather by dozens of relatively equal but competing small countries. What we witness is not simply the coexistence of various perspectives and artistic modes of practices and choices, we find that the past is altered and re-composed and that significant contemporary tendencies come from them; and we find an interesting splicing of what seems to be different time development of different regions in the present.

However, we can also find one possible problem with the democratization of contemporary art, whereby contemporary art is simply a receptacle that contains whatever happens in the art world of the current time. In the name of contemporary art, the current always swings between progress and regression. The following scenes were witnessed during my research trips in 2008. I met with an owner of one of the leading galleries in Tokyo who proudly showed me Van Gogh-style landscape paintings by a Japanese artist while making no distinction whatsoever between this painting and other serious contemporary art practices. In the main building of the National Gallery of Art in Caracas, Venezuela, one of the exhibition halls was dedicated to showing the leisure-time drawings of the exhibition guards working at the Gallery; what I saw in the gallery was not the guards’ hobby paintings, but the result of a populist project pursued by the dictatorial Chavez government. Back in Seoul 2011, while working to set a new curatorial workshop program for a new private institution founded by a heavy-industry corporation, the director of that institution warned me not to use the term “laboratory” because, politically, it sounds Left-oriented. These are the kinds of eccentricities that one frequently experiences, and they bring to mind again that living in the same calendar time is not the same as living in the same contemporariness.

Another known disturbing scene is to be found inside the recently heated art world in say China or India, a scene propelled by the neo-liberal topography of art markets that have grown explosively in the past decade. I would say that it is a scene that baffles our belief in the genuinely progressive as well as the critical nature of art. In Beijing, works of art are often produced entirely as labour-intensive commodities, with monumental or symbolic gestures, and art studios become veritable busy art factories, in which we face the return of the ghost of Orientalism. What I saw in that phenomenon was the submersion of the resistance of the past 20 to 30 years of artists who have been refraining from turning their art into other’s craft, namely post-colonial products. This scene, run by a newly emerging market, is also affected to the extent of repressing the previous achievement in some parts of the Asian region where artists’ practices are strongly engaged in undoing monumental one-liner craft spectacles and where the politics of form derives from artists’ hesitation and distancing of themselves from a domineering situation.

It should be common sense that contemporary does not mean simply living in the same time frame. While we live in the same calendar time, each individual neither lives through the same time nor experiences its light and darkness in the same way. Certain phenomena found in the expansion of contemporary art should be a call that they have to embrace and adopt; for some of us, however, this is clearly seen as outright regression of history that abuses the term “contemporary”. Where is the veritable essence of contemporaneity placed? What did we miss in our blind celebration of contemporary art?  

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it. (1)

[...] the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that—more than any light—turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time … This urgency is the untimelineness, the anachronism that permits us to grasp our time in the form of a “too soon” that is also a “too late”; of an “already” that is also a “not yet” [...] (2)

According to Agamben, contemporaneity is ultimately defined by the person who is living the contemporary, the person who is not passive, the person who does not “coincide too well with the epoch”. The contemporary person is someone who fully and actively traverses their time by choosing to exercise their sovereign rights. Agamben further explains that the contemporary person is not someone who bakes in the glorious sunshine of their time, but rather someone who is more sensitive to its shadows and darkness, and someone who tries to recognize light and bring it into the darkness. These two characteristics of the contemporary, as defined by Agamben, are also applicable to the pioneering – and therefore untimely – achievements made in the persistent progress of veritable human history, which is born with the pains of dislocated and broken spines in each time.

The landscape of today’s globalism, in a positive sense, arises out of the regional networks that connect the evolutionary phenomenon of mutually different cultures. In the last few years, China and India have attracted the attention of the art world with their economic prowess, while more recently the Middle East and North Africa have drawn attention because of the political changes taking place there. Since the 1990s, globalization has dismantled the First World hegemony of the 20th century, and it has opened up a new democratic and pluralistic horizon of visual culture. This is an encouraging change. However, where such attention is caused by an economic impact of geo-political importance, there is a possible problem: art becomes a tool for “cultural marketing” and abandons its duty to the true meaning of the contemporary; there is a discord with the general trend of the era.

In this situation, the different forms of anachronism seen today have also become more complex than ever. What is considered an artistic phenomenon that is too late in one region is considered too soon in another. Given this situation, an artistic practice, in historical development as well as in critical language, that is ‘too late’ should be criticized as such in any locality. However, to take such a position is to risk being called a cultural supremacist, or someone who does not recognize cultural relativity; from the perspective of the advocates of multiculturalism or cultural diversity, this is certainly not a politically correct position to adopt. Thus, in the name of multiculturalism, double or triple standards are applied to evaluating artistic practices in different localities, without speculation over whether the works of art or visual languages found within a new fashion are estimated to be literal anachronisms or ideal anachronisms in terms of the contemporary. This can be seen as the shady side of global multiculturalism. It insulates the local in national bland, and it even creates a new form of possible segregation, that is culturally doubling the other. I think this is another aspect of the abuse of the term “contemporary” and our exhaustion with this term. The essential time found in any local must be transcendently contemporary, and then it is not limited to local anymore. It is an anachronism to come, where considerable resistance and artistic discretion are placed.

Annual Report, the title of the 2008 Gwangju Biennale (Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director), for which I was the co-curator with Ranjit Hoskote, was a research project on contemporary art scenes that are at “the threshold of indeterminacy between an excess and a deficiency”. (3) In other words, the art world is busy today, but one can no longer find any direction or focus for artistic progress. This aspect of the art world was particularly highlighted in the section of the 2008 Biennale entitled “On the Road.” Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, this section involved researching and selecting various art exhibitions and cultural events that took place for a period of one year prior to the opening of the Biennale in 2008. The exhibitions and events we researched were then invited, in whole or in part, to participate in the Biennale. The section “On the Road” in Annual Report was an exhibition of exhibitions, and as such it did not have a single-focus theme or issue. Our aim was to present an opportunity to examine what the present is made of. In other words, the exhibition was a tenacious work, meant to be a temporary archive of the “now”, an archeological excavation into “our time”, what we are standing on top of. As Ranjit Hoskote has said, this was “a wild journey of self-discovery, but also a workman-like survey of development”. Although we did not make any prior assumptions for the research, it resulted in selected invitations disclosing a “politics of form”, which is “concerned with how artists manage the aesthetic demands of their artistic principles and social necessity of discovering new terms of production”, (4) as well as with a certain resistance to hyper-production or formal conformity driven by today’s generalization of contemporary art.

Unfortunately, our efforts for Annual Report were least appreciated here in South Korea, the host country of the Biennale. The press and the art community took little interest, since Annual Report did not have an epoch-making theme; it did not suggest something completely new; and it showed works that had already been shown in various other parts of the world. Some went so far as to complain that what we did amounted to insulting them, in that the exhibition was a regurgitation of other exhibitions. In contrast to the close readings of the curatorial direction and the support we received from overseas media, South Korean reviewers saw our efforts as completely anachronistic; according to the Korean reviews, nothing in our exhibition was anchored in reality. My point here is not to suggest that the positive evaluations of Annual Report from the international art community automatically make it a successful experimental model. The point is that the contemporary significance of this attempt, an archeological look at the present, was passed over entirely in South Korea and that the meaning of contemporary was once again fixed to the notion that it must suggest something new, and to what is artificially considered “future-oriented”.

Here I would like to turn to the third aspect of the contemporary that Agamben discusses:

Contemporariness inscribes itself in the present by marking it above all as archaic. Only he who perceives the indices and signature of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary. “Archaic” means close to the arkhē, that is to say, the origin. But origin is not only situated in chronological past: it is contemporary with historical becoming and does not cease to operate within it … an archeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living. What remains unlived therefore is incessantly sucked back toward the origin, without ever being able to reach it. The present is nothing other than this unlived element in everything that is lived. … The attention to this “unlived” is the life of the contemporary. And to be contemporary means in this sense to return to a present where we have never been. (5)

It is this insight, the third aspect of the contemporary, that Agamben discusses, that frames the understanding not only of the archeology of the present pursued in Annual Report, but also the many archive and research projects that have become important among artists and curators today, as well as the phenomena in reinterpreting and revisiting various historical references in today’s artistic practices. Contemporariness, in terms of the archaic, or its relationship to the archetype, does not refer simply to a physical age, or to works or research that deal directly with the classical or the archaic. Furthermore, for Agamben, delving into the archaic does not necessarily mean tracking back to a far distant past. The archaic is the present that we cannot experience in the present; thus to explore the archaic is to construct a new present through the un-experienced remains of the present. Agamben states that “the contemporary put to work a special relationship between the different times”, (6) by interpolating “the present into the inert homogeneity of linear time”. (7)

A work of art begins with a question hanging over the present like a shadow, or with a sliver of a clue captured in the middle of the nebulousness surrounding the present; it approaches history in an unprecedented way and thereby inscribes different possibilities for the present. When the present and the past are interpolated in this manner in an artist’s work, according to “a necessity from an exigency” (8) to which he must respond, we can then say that we are approaching the contemporary self that is true and responsible to one’s time. In this context, the urgency of scrutiny into our recent past is as exigent as the necessity to respond to one’s time, as well as to the obscurity of contemporaneity. The movement of time may not be visible, but neither has it disappeared. The proximity of the contemporary is prepared not only in our revisiting a sustainable past, but also in our constant engagement with the neglected present.   


(1) Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, What Is an Apparatus?: And Other Essays (Stanford University Press, 2009), 41.
(2) Ibid., 45.
(3) Giorgio Agamben, “Democracy and War,” a lecture delivered on January 30, 2005, at the Uninomade symposium, Padova, Italy. For discussion of and excerpts from the lecture, see: http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2006/07/the_politics_of.html. [16 April 2012]. See also, Hyunjin Kim, “Annual Report: Tenacious Work for the Potentiality of the Present,” in The 7th Gwangju Biennale: Annual Report, the Biennale catalogue, p.59, Footnote 4. [Translator]
(4) Okwui Enwezor, “The Politics of Spectacle,” The 7th Gwangju Biennale: Annual Report, the Biennale catalogue, 21
(5) Agamben, trans. Kishik, Pedatella, What Is an Apparatus?, 50.
(6) Ibid., 52.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid., 53.

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Wed 4/25/2012 5:07 PM
Manuel Ocampo, Artist based in Manila


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

In Manila, there is very little, or rather, barely non-existent kind of support for contemporary art by the institution.  To look at it differently, contemporary art in Manila can be very much put into question.  If contemporary art refers to works that tend to encapsulate the conditions lived in the present, to picture it, conditions that are nigh invisible to those wrapped closely around them, ineptly providing insights capable of unveiling illusions more so perpetuating them, with the works displaying features having no potency now, relinquishing by default the shock of the new into sanitized well-groomed tchotchkes in a museum, only proves that art effective of the present is nowhere to be found here.  This brings to question where Manila is in terms of the contemporaneous, and how institutions can be mediums of such conditions. Contemporary art in Manila thrives in the commercial galleries, where even in this situation the idea of “contemporary art” is suspicious.  These are loaded statements of course, meaning to say that they are arguable.  Of course institutions would say in their defense that they indeed support contemporary art by giving them space to display such works.  But do the works define contemporary art? Or are they mere shells of a contemporary art style, of a look so to say?  In fact harboring such a “look” has been the constant criticism on most Asian contemporary art, that it parrots a western definition of the contemporary, that of being mostly conceptual and theoretically based.  Perhaps the word institution doesn’t refer to museums or academies but more so on received ideas that perpetuate the norm, which very much thrives in Manila.  And so individual practice, since there is lack of institutional support, almost an enemy, becomes a counter-movement that invalidates the definition of the institution as the house of culture by creating its own standards of acceptability and audience through works that are unacceptable from the common norm, as bastardized representation.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Art fixed within certain standards of general culture, region, history, and the various bonds of visual culture including its ideological strap make art tame, lame, predictable, and circumscribed.  Following such conventions make art cozy and clean which loses its power as a commentator of life, of something mysterious and beyond us, that makes us stop to live.  The idea of the contemporary, art for that matter, as being of the moment is a misnomer, residing instead outside of time and place, where the greater paradigm of visual culture doesn’t have a clue.  Because the contemporary is always an amalgamation of past and present material propelling itself into the future like incantations wishing for things to be.  The contemporary is always never here but its presence can be felt, like nocturnal emissions made during sleep.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Yes to the point like sitcom reruns.  You know what’s coming but find yourself still laughing.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

Yes because territoriality is also based upon taste, upon group consensus, as culture developed over time.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

Folk and traditional practices don’t have to inform or translate into contemporary practices, because this is akin to the exploitation of resources and leaving the shell after its plunder.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

This sounds like art in the service of a powerful group, whether economic, intellectual, spiritual, or military, that would use art to gain its ends.  Politically engaged art tends to become a partner of the culture industry as catalyst not so much for individual freedom, but rather, as another market fodder in the quest for the authentic product, as perpetual youth, as continuing a vague tradition out of the necessity to be.  In the end why does art need to jump all over these hoops to be “engaged”? Who knows the difference between politics and entertainment, of criticism and awareness? 

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Sat 4/28/2012 12:21 AM
Carol Lu, Curator and critic based in Beijing

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

Generally speaking, institutions are a public platform for art and the choices that institutions make tend to be taken as a token for quality. For a very long time, art institutions in China haven’t lived up to the role of being such a benchmark for thinking and practice in art. Most institutions lack in-house curatorial staff and are unable to accommodate or generate any research-based projects or projects that would require in-depth intellectual engagement. There is almost no capacity for knowledge production in most of the art institutions all over China. Museums and art institutions tend to comply with the same value system that the art market operates on. Instead of creating independent value judgments, they end up reaffirming the same choices and perspectives on art. On one hand, art institutions still exert a lot of influence among the majority of the art circle and are held as an authoritative role in the art system. People try and buy their ways into the museums and art institutions. In the meantime, there is also a general distrust and disillusion about art institutions simply because they have nothing to offer apart from their physical buildings.

Slowly things have changed. Over the last few years, a few institutions have made headways by developing curatorial programmes of their own, initiating discursive projects, research-based exhibitions, publication projects, collection strategies as well as regular exhibitions that involve international curators and practitioners. Most of these changes have happened in South China but already caught great attention and interest all over China. More and more institutions would be created in the upcoming years and people have only started to awaken to the fact that art institutions need their own artistic content and conceptual productions. We are witnessing a new museum/art institution movement in China. Competition is tough and professionals are called for.

The scarcity of museum professionals and curatorial staff also drives the museums and institutions to open their doors to independent practitioners. It’s possible to foresee connections and engagements individual practitioners can establish with institutions and the exchanges the two could initiate from each other.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

As a form of knowledge production, the discourse on contemporary art is relatively underdeveloped and very removed from practice. The general perception of discourse on art tends to be that it resides in a higher position in the hierarchy of art. But such a lack of equality between art criticism and art practice results in the isolation of art discourse, which becomes an obstacle to the development of art discourse itself. It lacks dynamism, creativity, energy and vision. It’s almost impossible to find an art magazine with consistent quality writing in the region.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

We are trapped in the perception of “the contemporary” as a time-specific notion. It’s important to acquire the ability to perceive “the contemporary” in the past, the present and the future. It’s a quality and a mindset, an adjective, an ongoing process of rediscovery and renewed perception.

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

In China, contemporary practices emerged from folk arts, crafts and fine arts. Reading through the Fine Arts magazine (Meishu) from the late 80s, it became apparent that contemporary practices were born amidst what are generally perceived as fold and traditional practices. For practitioners and makers of art, such divisions and categorization don’t really exist or matter. They are just certain art forms one can project contemporary ideas and thinking onto. 

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

During our research for the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, we interviewed Qian Weikang, a Shanghai-based artist who made a conscious decision to withdraw himself entirely from the art world in the mid 1990s. We have chosen one of his works, made in 1995, as the main visual for the biennale. This was a work entitled Ventilating the Site, in which he tied a curtain to a window with four handheld scales at the four corners. This is a highly symbolic piece for us, which suggested to us, no matter what the conditions are, art is always around us. For most artists who are seriously engaged in political art, the institutions are only a platform for expression but not a necessity or the ultimate factor that would affect the shape and intensity of the artist’s practice.

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Mon 4/30/2012 12:57 AM
Naiza Khan, Artist and curator based in Karachi

Adaptive practices towards the Contemporary

In Asia, there is a vast and differing level of economic and social growth; as a result, the institutions and frameworks for understanding art practice are at varied stages of development.   Three years after Hal Foster sent his ‘Questionnaire on “The Contemporary” we are perhaps not any closer to answering that question, despite the engaged dialogues that have emerged in Asia. 

In Pakistan, comparatively speaking, the contemporary or post-modern, has a different value and historical development to its Western trajectory. If we look at the contemporary in art historical terms, in the West, there was a break from history, a reaction to traditional aesthetics.  We have not experienced such a break from art history in Pakistan; in fact, we are continuously building on top of history.  Our transitions have been more fluid and overlapping.  So the notion of the contemporary has a different value for us as it is constructed on different terms.

The growth of the art industry in Pakistan is still at a nascent stage, whereas, the growth of art practice is continuing at a dynamic pace despite the lack of a critical apparatus of engaged voices from within.  Local Institutions have not developed local knowledge around the idea of contemporary art. Our artists are building theory themselves, in the absence of infrastructure and critical discourse.  Artists are using industrial and digital processes as well as traditional forms such as the miniature process in their work.  It is quite an enigma that even though Pakistan is on the verge of economic default, somehow art production is moving at its own speed as if it is driven by another compass.  I feel this phenomenon is not only due to the interest in Pakistani art from international art markets.  The situation in Pakistan is such that artists feel the need to express themselves and find ways of working that are reinventing old frameworks and responding to the dynamics of societal change.  Just as during the decade-long military regime of General Zia ul Haq, where repression became a productive force for many creative voices. So currently, we face the challenges of transformative forces that operate in different habitats. Artists sense the multiplicity of these changes, and are able to draw upon them.

As a visual artist working and teaching in Pakistan for the last 21 years, I find that my understanding of the contemporary is based on how my work is being interpreted and who is receiving it.  In order to locate the contemporary, I can speak more about how and what my work is in synergy with and how I have been trying to reconfigure the physical encounters between artwork and viewer. 

My interest in interventions into public and urban space in Pakistan has led me to a long-term investigation of Manora Island, just off the coast of Karachi. This research has also informed the broader project where I am looking at the notion of disrupted geographies across other terrains.  Karachi, its urban sprawl, its history and the decaying machinery of colonialism, the assault on urban and architectural materiality as a symbol of geopolitical strife, has been part of multiple concerns in the work.  As a visual artist, my esearch has been about observation; of the appearance and apparent facts of a place, and about reflecting off these facts. An artwork is internally and conceptually located, but the process by which facts are absorbed determines the synergetic value of the work.

This accumulative process of mapping has evolved in an intuitive manner, in which I have gathered information through informal means; random conversations, drawings of sites, folklore, and the linkages that are unscripted and unresolved between all these points.  The process of creating imagery through this body of research has shifted the engagement with what I would produce within the confines of the studio.  I am accumulating knowledge and creating knowledge through an experiential process. There are unusual yet strong links between different approaches; the small drawing/ watercolors hold a sense of space that relates to memory; the linear drawings are almost like a grid mapping the psychological terrain, the performative work on the island that involved painting the furniture in the school yard,  became a way to directly mark the land/ terrain, albeit temporarily.

The idea of creating terrain and its importance to materiality has been an impetus to research and accumulate images, texts, conversations and objects.   This project of building terrain is akin to building knowledge within the wider discursive field of urbanity in the region.

My desire and need to locate my art practice in relation to locale has allowed me to move away from informed structures of learning and the art establishment into informal structures to find meaning in the work. I am looking at differentials of knowledge; interdisciplinary sources of reading / the knowledge that my welder brings / conversations with infringed communities / urban theory / craft knowledge. The terrestrial is inclusive of the spectral, as it includes the embedded histories of communities.  This meditation on the nature of the informal exists in terms of both intellectual resource and aesthetic practice.  The formation of my work is thus multi-sourced and in this there is a mutability of meaning.

I have been using the structure of writing as a tool to look at my practice, as a cultural devise to integrate these informal sources.  Can these processes be articulated as practice, as a way to interrogate the contemporary? 

I am trying to find alternative ways to locate the contemporary- to interpret art practice through an interdisciplinary lens: where readings of the contemporary come from multiple sources of understanding urbanity, culture, belief and politics at large. In this way, the contemporary is not a fixed point, but a site of radical potential.  We need to develop interpretive methodologies to look at contemporary art practice in Pakistan, in relation to historical and critical discourse.  This fluid space enables practitioners like myself to find ways of understanding art being produced in our midst through a diverse lens.  

The word ‘contemporary’, generates multiple relays and nodes of interaction, some which are located in history, others in locale and materiality.  The production of art within Pakistan is stretched across a varied and uneven terrain; this complexity, if stretched across the terrain of Asia, is an even more complex scenario to negotiate.  So it is more pertinent to ask what contemporary Pakistani practice is in synergy with and what is being synergized.  From this point it is possible to interrogate the impetus for its production; where an idea or image begins and what it reveals about the producer, his/her relationship to the context and the receiver. 

There are inherent possibilities of the informal sector that inform contemporary practice, which have hitherto not been elaborated.  My experience of art education/ the art institution has been wide-ranging. Stepping out of this framework has created an awareness of how working within the institution can lead to formalism which denies the inclusion of other sources of knowledge building.  The contemporary, as I experience it, is not about formalism but about an adaptive use of practice and knowledge.

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Sun 5/6/2012 11:23 AM
Akira Tatehata, Professor at Tama Art University in Tokyo

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

Contemporary art does not refer to all the art being produced today. Although there is no strict definition, for better or worse, museums, galleries, organizers of biennials and triennials, and other professionals including critics, journalists and collectors globally share a standard that has a certain level of universality. This does not mean that cultural heritage and locality are excluded, or rather, valuing a cultural plurality is one of a valuation basis for contemporary art.

One dimensional contexts had maintained prominence until the 1970s when the activities of so-called Museums of Modern Art such as MoMA in NY were located in the center of this standard. After the 1990s, however, many international exhibitions were newly established in Asia and multiculturalism became a central context of contemporary art. In this sense, the development of institutions in Asia and the definition of contemporary art are closely related.

Institutional practice tends to reflect or even lead a context that shapes a main stream of each period such as formalism in the past and recently post-colonialism and multiculturalism. Individual practice, for example the activity of non-profit organizations, would contribute to securing a tolerant culture by sharing an ism as opposed to a context of a period or a movement that does not belong to a mainstream.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

In a good way, the discourse on contemporary art functions as an idea to raise multiculturalism from a global point of view. However, if multiculturalism in a regional context is carried as a fundamentalism, it could lead to a dangerous situation that connects with ethnically, spiritually, and culturally intolerant ideologies.  

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

I believe the word contemporary should be understood with Baudelaire's concept of modernité. It should be understood without a progressive view of history. Contemporary is important because it is the time in which we put ourselves and it should not be connected with a notion of progression. 

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality prescribed by temporality and historicity?

Each region's present and past should be comprehended with regional multiplicity and uniqueness. In a negative way, the view of globalism could be a fair name to cover up unilateralism.

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

They should not be practiced with a reactional manner in a fundamentalist way. Fundamentalism is not the recurrence of the origin that once existed. In most cases, it was generated globally as opposed to unilateralism after the collapse of the Cold War structure. Valuing an ethnic identity should not exclude a possibility of a contemporary communication with other cultures. 

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

There is a possible danger.  Following the rise of biennials and triennials in Asia, large-scale museums have recently been founded and art fairs are held frequently throughout the region. I am apprehensive about the situation that an alterity in art and a critical function for a society become less important by such tendency. In this sense, the revitalization of a non-profit organization's activity is required.

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Mon 5/7/2012 1:23 AM
David Elliott, Curator and art historian based in Berlin


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

When Museums of Contemporary, as opposed to Modern Art started to be built (probably at some time in the 1980s) they obviously had to come up with some kind of definition about their collecting policy. This was nearly always chronological but as there was no norm they all came up with different periods. Some stretched it back to the end of the 1950s with Pop Art and Minimalism, others, more convincingly, to the huge political and cultural changes at the end of the 1980s and now, like in Kanazawa or Rome, there are Museums of  21st Century Art. Few of these institutions though have really questioned the qualitative change between modern and contemporary, regarding it more as a matter of timing. Art worlds tend to perpetuate themselves and the western art world - with all its liberalism - is no exception. No real structural re-think has taken place, particularly in the large "Anglo-Saxon" museums like Tate or MoMA. They manage to acknowledge tokens of change - but as for change itself "no thanks". As a result these institutions are becoming even more provincial than they were before not that there is anything necessarily bad in being provincial - we all are to a greater or lesser extent – but not to acknowledge this is rather pretentious.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? 

The modern is hierarchical, market orientated and essentially colonial. It still continues and I would describe Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst as essentially "modern" artists. The contemporary is purely descriptive of time - it's something that is made now and can include a whole range of objects that were previously excluded - including so-called ethnographical art and of course that vast category of non-western art. The question within contemporary art is one that modernity long excluded: is a particular work any "good" or not, and what does this mean? And the field of cultures and aesthetic traditions that need to be considered when asking this question is infinitely wider so comparative skills of a much greater kind are needed by curators, writers and critics. An interesting issue for now is whether this idea of this contemporary can be operated retrospectively on art that was excluded simply because it did not fit in with the western paradigm. This suggests a very different approach to the revisionism of western art history

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Why should we be? There is the possibility of being much freer within it - if we grasp it.

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?

When the age of western domination and progress was around the link between these ideas was virtually an unconscious reflex. They are so ingrained they have to be actively unlearnt. Yet many people are scared of this because they don't know what to put in its place. It is almost as if they afraid that they will lose some kind of status, but that status, if it ever really existed, disappeared years ago and has been kept alive by governments, media and institutions as a way of ingratiating themselves with a skittish and nervous public.

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

Absolutely. 

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Politically engaged art, unless it is past its sell-by date or dressed up as something else, is never terribly popular in the art market or in the institutions that have such a lack of imagination that they are more or less governed by the market. Yet all art, if it is any good, is political in some sense in that it touches on questions of representation and power but it need not necessarily be activist. Activist art is a relatively small but important part of contemporary art. But it needs to be nourished by the individual integrity of a much larger body of artists who refuse to take instructions from anyone.

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Fri 5/10/2012 10:34 AM
Gao Shiming, Executive Director of Centre of Visual Culture at The China Academy of Art, Hangzhou


The so-called “artist” is a position; we must occupy it.
“Contemporary” means living/working “in the present era.”

I. Before we begin our discussion on “contemporary art,” let’s first take a moment to reflect on the issue of “art now.” (art in the present)

As an “event,” the creative work of artists is an exchange, either tangible or intangible, between the artists and their traditions, peers, unseen public and unforeseeable future audience. This process of continuous exchange has consequently given rise to this interwoven mess of “art now”. The so-called “artwork” is put into this interwoven mess in order for it to be circulated.

Within such a tangled mess and sizable ecology of art history, museums, mass media and the art market, what is the position of art’s “meaning”? How is “artistic value” derived? Where and when do the “work” and the “creation” of art begin and end? Why and in what sense are art activities called “productions” and “practices”? How do they resist becoming part of the media spectacle? How do they create sensory value that cannot be replaced by spectacle informed by capitalism, and yet still remain in conversation with them?

Perhaps there is no such a thing as a pre-existing or a ready-made “artist;” perhaps artists are themselves also just an incident or an event. There is no artist, only an artistic state. An artistic state is when the dynamics between art and politics are initiated, when an accustomed situation suddenly caves in and when the rug is pulled out from under one’s feet, when one’s self emerges from the persistently entangled world that one lives in, when the depth and enchantment of the world is illuminated time and again.

Departing from the illusion of a linear narrative, history is a vast ocean and the so-called “contemporary” is just its surface. While the ocean surface is merely the “surface” layer that the eye can see, it is in fact inseparable from the ocean. This vast ocean, volatile and turbulent with crashing waves, goes back and forth in and out of our bodies.

Thus, the so-called “contemporary” is nothing but simultaneous presence of various generations. Consequently, everyone has their own contemporary; we are all in everyone else’s “contemporary.”

For those of us who are constantly creating and producing, “contemporary” means “in the present era.” To reflect on history is to look back ourselves with sincerity. In “the present era,” we must first face the shamble mess created by the history. “In the present era” means nothing is conclusive since there is no finish line in real history; there is still a possibility to reverse everything. For me, such a reversal does not have to be a messianic arrival; rather, it is a process of re-connecting and re-telling. To construct our “contemporary,” let us salvage all the meaningful debris in this vast ocean of history—ancient and modern, Eastern and Western—as well as those effectual emotions and knowledge at the present time.

II. The much relished and detested “contemporary” in today’s art and intellectual world is nothing but a construction of the contemporary spectacle. “Contemporary art” defined and presented by such a constellation and construction of “contemporary” is merely a lesion of the contemporary spectacle system. A key issue in the “contemporary” debate is spectacle capitalism. In the era of spectacle capitalism every reality has become a spectacle and ready-made. We are assigned as “individuals” with various identities. Whether we are Asian, Chinese, or “non-Western,” whether we are artists, curators, or spectators, we are all placed into this process of ready-made identity assignment; we are only prescribed “freedom or democracy” as authorized by the system. We are subservient citizens within spectacle installations and life management because every bit of our internal drives, as well as our motivations to self-create, self-renew, and self-envision, have been taken away from us. In an era of spectacle capitalism, the exploitation of relations of production has transformed into biopolitics’ “deprivation” of people’s drives and potentialities.

We are deprived of our sense of history. History has become an experts’ handbook; it has become ready-made knowledge, operating target of ideologies, an accumulation of latest news, old news, and anecdotes, as well as something that has nothing to do with an individual’s life. As a result, we have to repeatedly question the relationship between public and private histories, as well as probe and retain oral histories and collective memories. In addition, mass media, a powerful weapon of spectacle politics, have deftly turned all major events into “hot topics” and “gossip.” Mass media is an open space; events such as the revolutions in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement have all been reported, discussed, and quickly forgotten after they become yesterday’s news. In an era of real-time media with the world constantly evolving and events incessantly renewing, who cares about outdated and over-the-hill news! Moreover, online social media’s “live” and “participatory” nature has become too easy and thus too cheap as well. We cheer for the fact that “we are taking part in history” today, but such “history” turns into gossip tomorrow.

History stems from change; it may also exist only in the moment of change. History may first and foremost be “in each case mine” (Jemeinigkeit), a minute history measured through the existence of each individual and a harmony comprised of the echoes and noises from countless minute histories. Furthermore, history is not only a flow of transpiring and evolving events, but also a flashback narrative structure that starts from within; it consists of activities that are perpetually constructing, self-reflecting and self-clarifying.

We are deprived of our sense of totality. An important characteristic of spectacle management is its tendency to compartmentalize and trivialize human existence. In the soap opera of global capitalism, we are all Locals; we are all “locally situated” but have no “roots.” This is because in this Global mishmash, the massive number of Locals is nothing but smaller heterogeneous units. They do not have common concerns; the various local narratives are merely a display of fragmented, non-productive differences. The objectives of common concerns is not to achieve some kind of cosmopolitanism or the so-called “One World One Dream;“ rather, it means to first clarify and critique an assigned “locality” by using authentic local experiences and then, most importantly, to build a connection and uniting. The historical topography formed during the process of the Cold War is disintegrating and the different voices and understandings that have emerged during this disintegration process prompt us to be connected together. These connections should not only exist within the Third World or non-Western world, they should also exist between the non-Western and the so-called Western worlds.

The stories of modernity emerging from various fragmented local narratives and stories of contemporary art and politics should be connected together; Taiwan and Mainland China, the two Koreas, North and South Vietnam, or India and Pakistan… these historical aftermaths thwarted by nationalistic narratives and histories of the these areas’ struggles and failures should be connected together. The modern and contemporary histories of mainland China-Taiwan-Japan-Ryukyu Islands, as well as the two Koreas, should truly be connected together. The histories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Vietnam War, and the 1968 movement in the West should be connected together... At this moment in time, we should break away from the assembly line of Western left-wing theories and shoulder the spiritual and historical burdens brought about by the two sides of Cold War.

To be connected together is not to attain universality but to expand perspectives and world views. Such connections are not an assemblage of static Locals; they are on a blade’s Edge, constantly moving back and forth between an inside and an outside edge. What results from these connections is an ideological experience inherent in historical conditions. This ideological experience has been moving back and forth in entanglements that are at once internal and external, has been continuously re-historicizing itself through real-life movements. It has been developing our collective social imaginations through repeated self-clarification self-empowerment and self-innovation; it has been transforming the fate of community from a civil society-based politics to a people-based politics of multitudes.

We are deprived of our initiative. The “multitude” of global links mobilized by online networks has, perhaps, only created a “useless majority” in the “frozen public domain.” The spectacle is not an enemy who besieges us externally, nor is it just a “Big brother” who monitors us constantly. It is not only something which we are inside of but also something which is inside of us; it is not only something which is both ubiquitous and ever-prominent, but also something which is both latent and invisible. We are part of the spectacle while the spectacle installations settle inside our bodies. This is the reality of biopolitics; to struggle against this spectacle is to wage a war against ourselves.

Criticizing the spectacle is a form of self-confession and self-rehabilitation; through this process of confession and rehabilitation, we regain our ability to envision ourselves and our society. This requires us to constantly return to our “intangible, vulnerable, and unsettled center,” as well as to re-invent our language. This “center,” according to Antonin Artaud, is life. As stated by a friend of mine, it is “to live life in depth, to live life with sincerity and authenticity, as well as to live life where one’s self is.” (Chen Jiaying).

“Creativity can never exist all by itself” (Huang Yongping). Most genuinely creative works and writings are all informed by life’s complex feelings and emotions, as well as indescribable anguish and despair. As we “return” to the “center,” it is not to grow used to life, but to “reconstruct.” Such a “return” is aimed to extricate ourselves from an automatic assembly line of artistic and academic production; to open an energy exchange channel between art and life--these two fragmented and compartmentalized realms--so that they can mutually support and critique each other; and to help those countless people and individuals who are co-opted and absorbed into the global capitalist system, who are used up by the production (all the producers are produced) and consumption (all the consumers are consumed) of contemporary life, as well as those who are crushed and defeated by the small frivolous details of daily life so that they can rediscover for themselves their emotions and intelligence, their internal drive and critical/active energies, as well as their power to express and renew themselves. In short, it is to re-activate our own internal drive, a drive that instead of homing in on the art of politics or the politics of art, focuses rather on the politics in politics and the art in art.

An artist’s creation represents a construction process that takes months and years rather than a program and its materialization. We live, care, love, and hate without any templates or programs; we act while we think, experience, and assess concomitantly, learning how to live by living and how to love by loving until we regain our Vita Activa (active life).

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Wed 5/16/2012 11:01 AM
Youngchul Lee, Professor at Kaywon School of Art and Design, Gyeonggi-do


What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art?

Contemporary art has been an arena for experiments to escape from the familiar codes of ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary,’ as well as from the stereotyped clichés of their forms. It has run and run since the middle 1990s. In this period of the darkness of art criticism in which the collapse of the grand narrative and universal aesthetics has dispersed the focus of criticism, the medium of exhibition has achieved rapid self-evolution and contemporary art has repeated the experiment with reorganizing the mechanism of the institution in which exhibitions are constantly held. The Olafur Eliasson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a few years ago, showed an attempt to re-use, re-contextualize, and re-define the institution. By making efforts to reorient its own role, not by putting limits on it, the institution tries to open conceptual, expressive, political, and performative possibilities. In the past twenty years of my career as a curator, my primary concern has been always to maintain this experimental attitude in the field. In the exhibitions such as “DIY”(2003) and “You Are My Sunshine”(2004) at Total Art Museum, Pyeongchang-dong, Seoul, I intended to show how to re-use the physical, cultural, and historical contexts of the art museum as a way of reading Korean contemporary art from a new perspective. In particular, “You Are My Sunshine,” which reorganized the forty years of the history of Korean contemporary art in terms of historical contexts and artistic events, attempted to re-articulate the space inside the museum so that the visitors could experience as if it were as a biological organ undergoing segmentation movements. This unique method of exhibition broke down the visual stereotype of the museum, that is, the cave-like space, and then made it anew as a textured space that produced dynamic contraction and expansion. As a result, here, contemporary art became a new cognitive space in which past, present, and future were all gathering to the cutting-edge ‘that’s-it-ness’ of the present-ness. For the inaugural festival of the NJP Art Center in 2008, I also planned a new type of exhibition that was to be shown for the first time in Korea: a combination of art exhibition and performance by twenty-four contemporary dance companies from Europe and Asia. The intervention of the performances of such artists as Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, and Ryoji Ikeda transformed the archive-like exhibition into a theatrical, situational space. As the purpose of the young Nam June Paik’s performance since the late 1950s was to liberate the sound of the cosmos and everyday life from the code of music and composition, now we come to generally try a choreographic exhibition of ‘writing in body’ as part of the process of looking for the way to make art escape more actively from the dictatorship of eyes and head.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

The self-critical formalism that tends to define art only within the frame of art itself is the product of the long tradition of Western modern thought and knowledge. This seems to have come out of the settlers’ obsession with building civilization. However, a new mode that is catching on in this age of nomadic culture is against the psychological and intellectual obsession with post-modernism. It is much more fascinating to be absorbed in creating a time or a place for playfulness and fun in an ‘a-modern’ state. The Nam June Paik’s epigram to “creep into the vagina of a living whale” is not a skirt-chasers’ slogan but a warning on the importance of ‘temporal feedback.’ I do not much like the word ‘visual culture’ that was coined as a means for self-preservation by the academic world based on the educational system. It poses no problem in Asia to expand the realm of art into that of visual culture and makes it interdisciplinary. Breaking up the dictatorial art history fabricated by a bunch of quacks, each Asian country is beginning to stammer and re-describe a new art history of science fiction in its own tradition. It is only in this that a new invention will appear. So, actively forget such names as Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys! The point is that you should forget them and erase them.

Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?

Yes. I think we need to steadily develop the ability to reject the attitude to distinguish ‘the contemporary’ as a way of being tempted by Western ideology and intellectual tradition. It is only by constantly denying and resisting defining the meaning of ‘the contemporary’ that we would be able to get out of the linear way of thinking. To what extent is it possible to live with the politics of going against the determination of meaning by such activities as the Indian way of naming, talking with things, etc.?

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

A housewife’s act of listening to music while washing the dishes is a kind of territorial behavior to achieve a good distance between herself and those around her. A psychological culture code is running at this moment to protect her open back by creating a defensive distance. The origin of art is based on territoriality, which is again rooted in instincts and desires such as attack-defense, reproduction, murder-fear, etc. Duchamp’s gesture of signing his name to a readymade as an industrial product is a zoo-ecological branding with no profound cultural meaning. I think Duchamp’s first readymade piece Bicycle Wheel represented the erect glans, and Fountain presented to the public four years later the vagina at the moment of orgasmic ejaculation. Likewise, the combination of the two offered a thermodynamic interpretation of a story of a bride violated by seven blue-colored bachelors—an adult-version of the tale of Snow White and the seven dwarves. India invented the wheel. The wheel, as an instrument of the production-oriented industrial revolution, is a sign of territoriality consisting of an axis, distance, and a boundary. It captured a bundle of temporalities and historicities into its center. The elaborate movements of tiny wheels formed the peak of modernity.

Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?

Now times have changed. From the wheel-centered to the circuit-centered. The age of the free connection with weightless information means the age of decentralization that is marked by the diffusion and divergence into individual historicities and temporalities occurring in every moment in the open circuit. The ‘History’ under compulsion by the wheel has been liberated into temporality and historicity. The term ‘contemporary’ signifies not the state in which we are all linked with one another both temporally and spatially, but the awareness of the very fact. He who understands that the time of the dead and the time of living alternate, and that being there and being here is being together here, is a shaman. A shaman is a man who recognizes. Although zooming in to see something far away is now done by the TV, it was originally required of a shaman, or a spiritual medium, and a prophet. He is a man who always sees the outside. And he is also a man who is liberated from territoriality in that he is always connected with the outside.

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

‘Being contemporary’ is to understand the aesthetics of not being, but becoming. Duchamp’s Étant Donnés showed the landscape of an event before the threshold of the world dominated by the circuit. The event as the final end result of the bachelor-machine is an image of a dead woman. Viewed from the present tense, Étant Donnés is something that belongs to folk customs and traditional practices. A plaster sculpture of a female dead body finished with sperm. What does the gas lamp in her hand suggest? In the medieval ages before electricity, it was the role of a spiritual medium to build a bridge between light and darkness. Nowadays, this role has been handed over to technology. We are now waiting for the artist as a techno-shaman. Then, it might be necessary to think how to combine folk and traditional practices with the notion of techno-shaman. Who and how can we transform the faint, yet burgeoning light arising from Duchamp’s Étant Donnés to that of a new civilization? At the present time when the white cube is being replaced by the black box, this may be ultimately a matter of how to create a light that blends biology and information art.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

The increase in modern institutions and the rapid growth of the art industry will encourage the belated introduction of Western systems as well as post-colonial cultural phenomena that will produce aftereffects. While in the West, the tradition of the May 1968 protest that had directly criticized social institutions ended early, it still continues in Asia, and furthermore, we have already entered the global age with the help of the development of communication media and satellites. I think this is why it is so important not only to struggle to rediscover Asian values from the viewpoint of what Gayatri Spivak calls “critical regionalism,” but also to thoroughly translate democratic values and human right issues within the region to artistic expressions.

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Keywords:
Anti-art movement, Art History, Biennial, Bombay Progressives, Calligraphy, Capitalism, Chinese Avant Garde, Cold War, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Curatorial, Dansaekha (Monochrome Painting), Disciplinarity, Ethnography, Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement), Gestural Abstraction, Globalisation, Hong Kong Arts Development Council, Identity, Ink Painting, Kaisahan Group, Kalighat Painting, M+, Minjung Art, Modernism, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Patronage, Pedagogy, Periodization, Post-Colonial, Relational Aesthetic, Santiniketan Kala Bhavan, Singapore Arts Museum, South East Asia, Subjectivity, Translation, Vernacular

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